A college philosophy professor is fighting to be allowed back on campus more than a year and a half after he was banished in the uproar over a podcast in which he questioned the immorality of adult-child sex.
Stephen Kershnar, a tenured professor at the State University of New York Fredonia, has sued saying the school president gave in to a “Twitter mob” and ignored his First Amendment rights by barring him from campus. A federal judge heard evidence in the case for a second day Thursday.
In a Jan. 30, 2022 appearance on “ Brain in a Vat,” Kershnar raised the scenario of an adult male wanting to have sex with a “willing” 12-year-old girl.
“A very standard, very widely held view is that there’s something deeply wrong about this, and it’s wrong independent of being criminalized,” Kershnar said on the podcast, which the lawsuit describes as “thought experiments and conversations with philosophers.”
“It’s not obvious to me that it is in fact wrong,” Kershnar said.
Two days later, a 28-second clip of the professor’s appearance was shared on X, formerly known as Twitter, by user “Libs of TikTok,” generating 1.5 million views.
Demands for the professor’s removal quickly followed from the public, conservative media and members of the New York State Assembly’s Higher Education Committee.
“Students threatened to leave school, parents threatened to pull their children from enrollment, and alumni threatened to stop financial support if the university did not remove plaintiff,” university officials said in court papers. “Several of these comments included threats against the university and its administration, including threats of violence.”
University President Stephen Kolison Jr. called the comments “absolutely abhorrent” and reassigned Kershnar, barring him from having contact with students pending an investigation. Kershnar still receives his full salary.
University officials said in a court filing that Kershnar’s removal was — and continues to be — a response to the threats of violence directed toward the professor and the school, not because of what Kershnar said.
“SUNY Fredonia has not disciplined (Kershnar) for appearing on the `Brain in a Vat’ podcast (and) does not intend to discipline him for that appearance,” the state attorney general’s office, which represents the public university, wrote.
In court Thursday, former SUNY Fredonia Police Chief Brent Isaacson said he has continued to recommend Kershnar stay away to maintain safety.
The people angry enough to comment online were just “the tip of a huge iceberg of people who were disgusted and angered by these views,” said Isaacson, who retired at the end of June.
Kershnar’s supporters see the action as a threat to the free exchange of ideas essential in higher education.
Philosophical and scholarly enterprise require “freedom to ask uncomfortable questions and explore unpopular arguments,” a letter signed by 158 university professors from around the world said, according to the lawsuit. If Kershnar’s “ideas are wrong, then we all benefit from seeing those errors exposed through intellectual engagement.”
Kershnar arrived at SUNY Fredonia in 1998 and became a full professor in 2005. With a focus on applied ethics and political philosophy, he has written 10 books and numerous articles and book chapters on topics including adult-child sex, abortion, Hell, pornography, punishment, and slavery, according to his online biography.
As a legal matter, adult-child sex should always be criminalized, Kershnar said.
Kershnar’s attorneys say threats to campus safety waned long ago and say the university is using them as “mere pretexts to mothball a professor whose questions earned the ire of state legislators, donors, the public, and the university’s president.”