THE ACADEMY

Prof: MIT Hospitalized Me For Ferguson Tweets

A tenured professor of literature at MIT is claiming that the school institutionalized him for ranting about academia’s response to Ferguson on Twitter.

12.11.14 10:45 AM ET

A tenured professor with 13 years of teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claims he was forcibly hospitalized and put on leave for a series of explosive tweets he wrote about Ferguson.

Noel Jackson, who is listed as an associate professor of literature specializing in poetry and the British romantic period, has a caps-lock-heavy Twitter feed blasting the white supremacy of academia, including his own school and colleagues, for turning a blind eye to America’s racial divide.

In August, an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson in a shooting that sparked protests in Ferguson and, later, nationwide. In the weeks that followed, Professor Jackson fumed on his Twitter about what he saw as his “surprisingly placid” fellow academics in the field of digital humanities sitting quietly on the sidelines as activism, both digital and physical, spread across the country.

Nearly two weeks after the killing, Jackson went on a week-long rant. During the first two days, he fired off a barrage of tweets against the humanities establishment—there were screenshots of DMs and a back-and-forth with activists and critics—crying for attention on the injustices being committed around them.

“I can only conclude #digitalhumanities has a hard time finding a spine when 1) race or 2) state-sponsored violence are at issue.” he wrote on August 22.

A few hours later, he called out two professors from the University of Maryland with a hashtag standing for “digital humanities,” saying they were “The #dh bullies we know,” and challenging them to defend their field. “Their silence was (I'm sorry to have to put it this way) inhumane—disgraceful—not deserving of the title of a humanistic endeavor,” he wrote. Then, Jackson directed the finger of blame towards his own institution, berating MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences for promoting “garbage,” and calling for institutional racism to be torn down, “by force if necessary.”

Many supporters came out to support his position, and he acknowledged them. “So you see, Twitter, this is not (solely lol) an isolated idiosyncratic rant. Our team rolls deep—WTF are you going to do, arrest us all?” he wrote on August 29.

Turns out, someone was apparently paying attention to his tweets. The next day, Jackson fired off a tweet before 9 am: “I was roused from bed this morning by 4-6 cops and am now at MGH [Massachusetts General Hospital]—presumably so they can check my #academicreedom levels...”

In subsequent tweets, Jackson claimed he was given no paperwork or explanation for his medical detention, and warned: “Just putting the word out there... Your institution will do you in EXACTLY THE SAME WAY (if you dare to say something)”

Then—after a stream of non-stop tweeting—Jackson’s Twitter account went conspicuously silent. Five days later, he reappeared, saying he was doing well but had been placed in the hospital by MIT. “I was section 12'd by my employer.  This was the unexpected but not altogether unsurprising end to my experiment in excitable speech.”

The law under which Jackson was allegedly hospitalized is presumably the 12th section of the Massachusetts General Law, which stipulates "the admission of an individual to a general or psychiatric hospital for psychiatric evaluation and, potentially, treatment." The law can be triggered if the person would "create a likelihood of serious harm by reason of mental illness" and allows them to be kept for up to three business days against their will.

On Twitter, Jackson attributes his alleged institutionalization to one series of tweets on the afternoon of August 29 in which he writes that he hopes to slice the “weak guts of #whitesupremacy” with a “MOTHERFUCKING SCALPEL.”

Jackson declined to comment on the case, saying it was at the behest of his lawyer. In response to a series of questions, MIT would only confirm that Jackson is part of the school’s faculty. But the professor’s story of his path from online activist to apparent in-patient (and now on-leave academic) can be followed via his Twitter account.

Academic freedom has been a hot debate within education circles. Recently this was reignited when the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fired Professor Steven Salaita for tweets he wrote about the Israel-Palestine conflict. “Zionists, take responsibility: If your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just f–cking own it already,” he had tweeted.

The discussion around the viability of his firing pitted freedom of speech versus professional and institutional responsibility and civility, and brought on furious debate. “Academic freedom does not exist when it is withheld from scholars with unpopular or even “offensive" views,” wrote the University of Delaware’s Director of Legal Studies David Blacker in an explanation of why he would not make a scheduled speech at UI.

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In Jackson’s Twitter feed, he mentions the Salaita case multiple times, arguing against stifling free speech on social media because “divisive rhetoric” is simply taking a stand for issues one believes in. But while Jackson’s posts started out as impassioned and controversial, they seemed at a certain point to steer toward vitriolic, filled with capital letters and swear words.

In November, he wrote: “RT if u are terrified at yr institution’s seeming ability to disappear U at will. Fav if u think yr institution can go SUK A DIK@LITatMIT.” He gave his employer a new nickname, referring to it only as “bitch tricks @MIT” and called everyone in the school—save one colleague—“PATHETIC COWARDS.” His photos include a selfie of him flipping off the school and he has posted a YouTube video of somebody, presumably himself, peeing in front of the MIT Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and burning a plastic MIT poncho in a fire pit to represent the demise of the school’s reputation.

Now, Jackson is demanding, via hashtags and a lawyer, that MIT “produce the #LegallyActionableTweet” or reinstate him. Though he won’t disclose more about his detention, he hadn’t quieted down on Twitter.

In mid-September Jackson tweeted: “NOT SHUTTING UP. Better institutionalize me a second time...” and “Academia is going to have to get used to a bit of immoderate tweeting. Or else arrest/institutionalize EVERY SINGLE TEACHER.” And, according to an October post his feed, the school allegedly issued a second order of hospitalization for him.

“I SPENT AS MANY DAYS INCARCERATED BY BITCH TRICKS @MIT AS SHOTS DARREN WILSON FIRED INTO THE BODY OF AN INNOCENT KID. #JUSTICEFORMIKEBROWN,” he later wrote.

These messages are at odds with Jackson’s scholarly writings and personal blog posts. In August, he penned an elegant “Notes on Resistance.” Here he expounded that: “In the political sphere, resistance is not an action, necessarily, but the acknowledgement of a strong negative feeling—which feeling and/or acknowledgement may, but needn’t be, acted on.”

With similar thoughtfulness, Jackson had, early on, explained his intention behind the call-to-action tweets that would later so offended his employer: “I want to make sure that when (not if) another calamity happens in our nation, another episode of egregious state-sponsored violence, that there are humans available, able and courageous enough, to stand up and say something,” he wrote. “I consider the training of humans (including myself) to be my job as an educator, an intellectual, and a humanist.

Editor's Note: This article has been revised to include the definition and text of Section 12.