9 April 2019

Disciplinary measure on lecturer following Facebook post

In consultation with the Executive Board, the management of Utrecht University's Faculty of Humanities has decided to impose a disciplinary measure (suspended punitive dismissal for a probational period of two years) on the lecturer who posted the message 'Volkert, where are you?' on Facebook. The management finds this remark to be abhorrent and unacceptable. However, the university also feels that the case does not warrant immediate punitive dismissal of the staff member in question. This is based on the fact that the university finds it credible that the lecturer did not intend his remark to be taken literally, and that the lecturer has apologised. 

The lecturer published his remark as a comment on a Facebook post about the election victory of the Forum for Democracy party. After this remark was brought to the attention of the university on 21 March, it repudiated the comment and suspended the lecturer pending a further decision.

Decision

It has now ruled that by posting the remark on Facebook, the lecturer violated the limits of acceptable conduct. Utrecht University places a high value on freedom of speech and expression. Like everyone else in the Netherlands, members of staff have the right to voice their opinions, which certainly extends to their conduct as private individuals on social media platforms. However, this matter concerns a reference to the murder of Pim Fortuyn, expressed in the public sphere, online, in the context of an election victory. Utrecht University is of the opinion that the lecturer should have known that his remark could be seen as a threat, was highly offensive and potentially damaging to the university.

Consideration

The fact that the lecturer presented a credible argument during his disciplinary meeting that his remark was not intended literally was taken into consideration when deciding on the disciplinary measure. To another Facebook user who asked whether he meant the remark, the lecturer responded on the morning of 21 March that 'of course [he did] not'. Later that day, he also offered an apology on his own Facebook page. That Facebook page was deactivated after the lecturer received explicit death threats. The Public Prosecution Service has announced that their preliminary assessment is that the lecturer will not face charges.

Probation

In light of these combined factors, the university judges suspended punitive dismissal to be a proportionate measure. It is a more severe penalty than a reprimand and means, in effect, that punitive dismissal is imposed, but not yet implemented. In other words, the member of staff will be given another chance. A two-year probationl period will apply.

The university feels it is important to be transparent with regard to the decision-making and outcome in this matter. The member of staff in question has agreed to this transparency. As a matter of record, the university would also like to mention that not only was the remark from the lecturer shocking in nature, but that the same can be said for the tone of some of the responses it elicited.