[Update: Two related BYU NewsNet posts: A story ("Mr. Nielsen publicly contradicted and opposed an official statement made by the First Presidency, and that is in violation of university policy") and an editorial ("This case, however, has very little to do with academic freedom."). The Trib also came out with a later story profiling Nielsen.]
BYU just has a knack for making great news copy. The latest: Jeffrey Nielsen, an adjunct professor in the Philosophy Department, published LDS Authority and Gay Marriage as an op-ed piece in the SL Trib last week. In his op-ed piece he labelled both opposition to gay marriage and pushing for a constitutional amendment against gay marriage as "immoral." He also included the statement: "As a member, I sustain the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as LDS general authorities."
Predictably, four days later he received a letter from his department chair informing him he would not be teaching at BYU next year, according to a news story in the SL Trib (and this story in the Deseret News). The Trib story quotes the letter Nielsen received as saying: "Since you have chosen to contradict and oppose the church in an area of great concern to church leaders, and to do so in a public forum, we will not rehire you after the current term is over." [Note: as an adjunct, he was on a year-to-year contract and did not have the BYU version of tenure. So he was not really fired, just not rehired for next year.]
Now USA Today and the AP have picked up the story -- it fits so neatly into the "church fires courageous scholar who speaks out on controversial issue" meme they can hardly pass it up. Is it really a big story, or is it "not a big deal," as Guy argues over at M&A? There are good arguments on both sides.
It's a Big Deal
Just because the BYU response is predictable doesn't mean it is defensible or that it isn't a big story. It is commonly held that universities and those who teach there need to have the freedom to express their views without fear of getting fired or demoted because of the substance of those views. The idea that certain topics or opinions are "off limits" seems antithetical to the free inquiry that most academics take for granted. Academic freedom exists for good reason and BYU should probably take it more seriously.
Furthermore, this sort of action unwittingly undermines the credibility of any and every BYU scholar who speaks on this or other issue of concern to LDS leaders (and it seems like that could be a pretty long list). For example, any BYU prof who speaks publicly in favor of political action supporting traditional marriage or who gives reasoned argument in support of a position against gay marriage can now be met with a rejoinder of the following sort: "Well of course you say you oppose gay marriage; if you supported it you'd be fired." How will they respond?
It's Not a Big Deal
On the other hand, every employee is familiar with the idea that if you say things that make the boss or the company look bad and do it publicly (or even at some board or website), and get caught, you can be fired. Hard for the average guy in the street to have much sympathy with academics who claim special exemptions for themselves, especially when they live off tax (or tithing) dollars.
Then there's the hypocrisy factor. Those who scream loudest about the injustice of a university terminating a faculty member for expressing unacceptable opinions are likely those who identify "unacceptable opinions" as unacceptably conservative opinions. Don't forget Harvard just got done firing its president because liberal faculty (i.e., most of the faculty) went berserk over opinions regarding innate differences in gender that he expressed publicly. The media and the majority of the academic community are hypersensitive to "censorship" of academic opinion by conservative institutions but are blind to the practice if it comes from the left. So BYU is hardly at the top of the list of offenders.
Here's my bottom line: You can't feel too bad for Nielsen. He had to know what was coming. If he chose to express his opinion anyway, you can't say he was blindsided. If he wanted freedom to speak on that issue, he should have chosen to teach somewhere else. At any other college or university, there are similar hot-button issues that can get you fired. Granted, BYU ought to take account of the bad PR it seems so adept at generating for itself and its faculty members, and the timing seems particularly bad on this one. Granted, some tolerated dissent would do the place some good -- it is a university, not a high school, and the students are adults, not children. But that's BYU's policy and it's no secret.