WELLESLEY — The dismissal of a former adjunct professor at Babson College over a satirical post made on social media earlier this month has drawn the attention of notable authors, academics and public figures, sparking a national debate over the interpretation and protection of free speech as defined by the First Amendment.

Asheen Phansey, the former Director of Sustainability and adjunct professor of marketing at Babson, had been dismissed on January 9 after publishing a now-deleted Facebook post in which he jokingly referenced two popular U.S. sites to be attacked in retaliation for President Trump’s threat to target 52 prominent Iranian cultural sites in a January 4 tweet.

“In retaliation, Ayatollah Khamenei [the current supreme leader of Iran] should tweet a list of 52 sites of beloved American cultural heritage that he would bomb,” Phansey wrote in the post-dated January 7. “Um… Mall of America? Kardashian residence?”

His employment at Babson was terminated just one day later after the private institution promised a “thorough investigation.” 

“Babson College conducted a prompt and thorough investigation related to a post shared on a staff member’s personal Facebook page that does not represent the values and culture of the College. Based on the results of the investigation, the staff member is no longer a Babson College employee. As we have previously stated, Babson College condemns any type of threatening words and/or actions condoning violence and/or hate.”

Phansey has since apologized for the sarcastic post, claiming it was not an incitement to violence or meant to be taken seriously.

“I regret my bad attempt at humor,” Phansey said in a statement published by WCVB. “As an American, born and raised, I was trying to juxtapose our ‘cultural sites’ with ancient Iranian churches and mosques. I am completely opposed to violence and would never advocate it by anyone. I am sorry that my sloppy humor was read as a threat. I condemn all acts of violence. I am particularly sorry to cause any harm or alarm for my colleagues at Babson, my beloved alma mater, and the place where I have enjoyed teaching students and serving as its sustainability director.”

“Phansey’s post contained no hint of harassment, incitement to imminent violence, nor any other category of speech outside the safeguards of the First Amendment,” read a public petition to Babson from PEN America, a national advocacy group promoting freedom of expression for writers. “His comment had no nexus to his role as a professor or administrator and fell squarely in the category of political speech warranting the highest level of protection.”

PEN America added, “Against a national backdrop in which punishments for speech are chilling open discourse, this draconian outcome risks compounding the constrictions on our public discourse… We call on Babson to immediately reinstate Phansey as both an administrator and adjunct professor.”

The letter was co-sponsored by the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO.

To date, the letter has garnered over 150 signatures from prominent academics, writers and public figures, including Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, Paul Auster, Joyce Carol Oates, Orhan Pahmuk, Jonathan Franzen and Salman Rushdie, the latter of whom received international attention in 1989 after Iran’s former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering his death as a result of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses.

Babson College has refused to comment any further on the controversy, nor has Phansey indicated he would be seeking legal action against the college.

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