A professor who was suspended from teaching after he criticized students who mistakenly claimed racism after seeing the names of students of color written on a white board has been cleared to return to teaching next semester.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reported that Coastal Carolina University (CCU) theater professor Dr. Steven Earnest can return to teaching next semester, but the university insisted that he was not suspended for politely disagreeing with overly sensitive students who jumped to racial conclusions about writing on a white board.

CCU had originally decided to terminate Earnest, FIRE reported. Earnest was helped by FIRE’s legal defense fund set up to defend professors from universities caving to woke mobs.

“Without the help and leadership of FIRE, I am certain that I would have been forced out of my career of over 25 years,” Earnest told the outlet. “FIRE’s strong support and guidance helped me to survive the mob attack with which I was faced and allowed me to move forward from a very difficult situation. University faculty are often placed in a defenseless position and FIRE’s support allows protection against cancel culture and the enemies of free speech.”

CCU claimed that Earnest agreed to the university’s suspension, a claim Earnest and his attorney deny.

“It’s amazing how quickly CCU backed off their indefensible position when FIRE got involved,” said Earnest’s attorney, Ruth Smith. “I’m proud to work to defend free expression here in South Carolina, and will continue to work with FIRE to defend free expression where it is threatened.”

Earlier this month, CCU verified that Earnest was on the schedule to teach the spring semester, but at the same time it claimed he had never been punished and that he was merely suspended “based on University need” only.

The situation began on September 16, when a visiting artist was talking to two students of color after class. One of these students said it would be nice to connect with other students of color in the theater department, and the visiting artist suggested it might be good for the non-white students to meet as a group.

This visiting artist, who has not been named, wrote out names of non-white students on a whiteboard while the small group brainstormed ideas. The students and visiting artist left the names on the whiteboard when they left the room, leaving the list to be discovered by the next class.

In today’s “outrage first, think never” culture, students in the incoming class saw the names and jumped to the conclusion that the list of non-white students must have something to do with racism.

As FIRE reported, the Department of Theatre’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee spoke with students and faculty involved in the incident, later determining that the names on the whiteboard were not there due to malice, but as “a resource for newer students who are looking to be in community with other BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] students.” Even though the protesting students were clearly wrong about the source of the whiteboard, the DEI committee apologized to them for being offended. In an email, the committee wrote that the “faculty and students involved as well as the Theatre Department as a whole are deeply sorry to anyone who was affected by this incident.”

The visiting artist also apologized for her actions, calling them “thoughtless and careless,” even though, again, she did nothing wrong.

Following this, Dr. Steven Earnest, a theatre professor and former Fulbright Scholar, responded to the email from the DEI committee by writing: “Sorry but I dont think its a big deal. Im just sad people get their feelings hurt so easily. And they are going into Theatre?”

He was instantly criticized for his remarks, and he followed up by saying he was “just defending our guest artist.”

Earnest was then accused of being “racially insensitive and dismissive of students of color,” according to FIRE. As is often with these cases, students started demanding Earnest be fired and stopped going to theater classes, claiming it was because they were offended by Earnest’s emails.

On September 20, the dean of CCU’s College of Humanities and Fine Arts, Claudia Bornholdt, told Earnest to send her his syllabus and not to teach his classes. It was effectively a suspension. FIRE sent a letter to CCU to defend Earnest’s Free Speech rights. The school instead decided to launch a termination process against Earnest.

“It was upsetting to be accused of racism by students and others with whom I have never interacted,” Earnest told FIRE. “But it was even more upsetting to have these false accusations ratified by a university that I have called home for over fifteen years.”

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