San Diego Professor Under Official Investigation for Blog Post That Criticized China

A tenured law professor is under investigation from the university where he works because of something he posted on his private blog. The post in question asserts that a laboratory in Wuhan, China, is responsible for the origins of COVID-19.

His employer, the University of San Diego School of Law, opened a preliminary investigation last month, indicating it took exception to some of his post's wording, not his actual claims. The matter has since progressed to an official review by the university.

In an email response to Newsweek, Tom Smith said he was "very surprised" about the investigation and wasn't sure what the school's dean was talking about when he was informed about it.

The investigation centers on a March 10 post on Smith's personal blog, which contained an excerpt of an op-ed that appeared in The Wall Street Journal. The original article contends the Chinese government had not allowed the World Health Organization to conduct a proper investigation into the coronavirus outbreak in its country.

Along with a two-paragraph excerpt, Smith added his own personal commentary, stating: "If you believe that the coronavirus did not escape from the lab in Wuhan, you have to at least consider that you are an idiot who is swallowing [a] whole a lot of Chinese cock swaddle."

"The blog is private," Smith told Newsweek. "It's not sponsored by USD, and I'm not identified as a USD Law Professor on the blog, just a law professor. The opinion I'm expressing—though this shouldn't make a difference—is mainstream enough to now be official US government policy if Secretary of State Blinken's comments [editor's note: on the April 11 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized China for not providing "real transparency" on the early stages of COVID-19.] are taken seriously. In it public statements and marketing materials, USD claims to be a champion of free speech and other liberal constitutional values."

The university contends it was Smith's use of the phrase "Chinese cock swaddle" that prompted the investigation. The Asian Pacific American Law Student Association and the USD School of Law Student Bar Association have since called on school officials to fire Smith.

"As is perfectly clear, especially in context, the word 'Chinese' in my comment referred to the Chinese government, not to people of Chinese ethnicity or Chinese-Americans. To read it otherwise was a tendentious mischaracterization of my comment," Smith said.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) took up Smith's cause upon news of the investigation being made public. FIRE is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that defines its mission as defending the individual rights of students and faculty members at America's colleges and universities.

"I think they overreacted," FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh told Newsweek of the university's reaction. "I think they may have been concerned about the public perception with people complaining that this is anti-Chinese bigotry."

"This was a post that was not in the classroom and was not sent to students. It was outside of the campus context, and that is where the university has its least interest in policing speech," Steinbaugh added.

The office of school President James Harris told Newsweek on Thursday: "This matter is under review. We are unable to provide any further information at this time."

Smith said the worst-case scenario from the investigation, as told to him by the dean, would be his termination. He said, "This would, of course, be a gross violation of my academic freedom, as would be any sanction for this protected speech, and would be as well a violation of my contract with the university and the California Labor Code."

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A law professor is under investigation at his university for a blog post concerning the Chinese government's handling of COVID-19 investigations. Getty