By Associated Press - Tuesday, September 15, 2020

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - University of Missouri-Columbia Journalism School faculty members are criticizing the university system’s president for comments and actions that they say could discourage dissent.

Fifteen faculty members signed a letter Monday to Mun Choi, who is also chancellor at the system’s flagship Columbia campus, the Columbia Missourian reported.

The letter comes after Choi last week faced backlash for blocking students on Twitter who criticized the school’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He unblocked them the next day in the face of a potential lawsuit.

He also came under criticism for a July meeting during which the Columbia Daily Tribune reported that he told administrators and top university officials that he expected their support for a decision by him and the university system’s governing board to keep a Thomas Jefferson statue on campus in Columbia.

The letter said those actions could have a “chilling effect” on the university’s School of Journalism and on free speech at the university.

“As the university confronts unprecedented financial challenges, and the likelihood of further layoffs and belt-tightening, an implied intolerance of dissent looms as a very real threat,” the letter stated. “Already, a few colleagues and students have confided that they fear speaking out will put their jobs or scholarships at risk.”

University spokesman Christian Basi declined to comment on Choi’s behalf. He has previously said that Choi has been good about accepting feedback that will make the school better.

Choi wrote in a July column that he’s dedicated to protecting free speech and supports the press. But he also spoke out against employees who “provide encouragement for discord and protest at the university in ways similar to what severely wounded the institution five years ago.”

Choi took over as president of the four-campus system in 2017 following massive protests in 2015 over the administration’s handling of racial slurs and other racist acts at the Columbia campus.

More than 30 Black football team members said they wouldn’t play until the university’s president was removed and one student went on a hunger strike. System President Tim Wolfe ultimately resigned and Columbia campus Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin stepped down to take another job with the university.

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