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Free-speech group says UC San Diego violated lecturer’s rights in controversy over racial comments

UC San Diego is midway through its fall quarter.
UC San Diego is midway through its fall quarter.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression says the university should reinstate Robert Ternansky and should ‘not punish faculty in the future for protected speech.’

A free-speech group says UC San Diego violated a chemistry lecturer’s First Amendment rights by taking away his teaching duties after he used racially charged language in class.

The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression also said Oct. 28 that the La Jolla university should immediately reinstate Robert Ternansky and should “not punish faculty in the future for protected speech.”

FIRE made the remarks in an email to UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla.

The university told The San Diego Union-Tribune that it does not comment about specific personnel actions.

The controversy arose from an incident in mid-October when Ternansky appeared to become frustrated by noise coming from a hallway outside his classroom.

The moment was captured on video and uploaded to social media.

Students are ‘split’ over whether the instructor, Robert Ternansky, should be fired, according to the Associated Students president.

The clip shows Ternansky walking into the hallway and saying, “Sí, sí señor. Ándale, ándale. Arriba, arriba.”

He then turned back to his students and asked, “How do you say ‘quiet’ in Mexican?” An unidentified student gave a reply that can’t be heard clearly in the video.

Ternansky then said, “Callate? Huh? Help me. All I knew how to say was ‘Ándale, ándale, arriba, arriba.’ I don’t think that was to be quiet? That’s like hurry up? Did I insult them?”

“Someone tell me if they start running in here with their weapons,” Ternansky added.

The clip quickly caused an uproar online. Some people called for Ternansky to be fired. Others expressed a sense of shock.

The commenters included Vicki Grassian, chairwoman of the department of chemistry and biochemistry. She co-wrote a statement that said in part, “We are appalled by the disrespectful and racist remarks made by a chemistry instructor ... in one of our undergraduate classes and are deeply sorry for the impact on our employees to whom these comments were directed, our students and our Latinx/Chicanx communities in particular.”

But many students went online to say Ternansky should be given a second chance because he apologized for his remarks.

In an online apology to students, Ternansky said: “I am writing to acknowledge my inappropriate comments in lecture and to sincerely apologize to all of you for my behavior. These comments do not align with our campus values.”

Ternansky has not responded to the Union-Tribune’s requests for comment.

FIRE acknowledged that some people found Ternansky’s remarks to be offensive. But the group said the comments “constitute speech wholly protected by the First Amendment, which binds UCSD as a public institution and prohibits the university from taking institutional action against him.”

“UCSD’s ‘engagement’ with him about his comments, and its subsequent adverse employment action against him, were inappropriate insofar as the university cannot punish him for constitutionally protected speech,” the group said.

FIRE said Ternansky did not seek its help but that the organization took up the matter because it believes his rights were clearly violated. ◆