University of Alaska President Proclaims Full Rights of Free Speech
March 27, 2001
FIRE's Defense of Besieged Poet Changes Climate in Anchorage
ANCHORAGE, AK—In a memorandum to the faculty of all campuses of the University of Alaska, President Mark R. Hamilton came to the rescue of Professor Linda McCarriston, a poet and teacher of creative writing subjected to administrative interference and investigation because of the content of her work. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) brought the details and issues of the case to the attention of the University and secured the rights of unhindered free expression for McCarriston.
In a sternly worded one-page memorandum of March 13, 2001, Mark R. Hamilton, President of the University of Alaska, ordered that support of the right to freedom of speech and expression never be "qualified" at the University, whether the threats to it come from the left, the right, or any political quarter. He directed all chancellors of the Alaska system to inform their campuses that "Opinions expressed by our employees, students, faculty, and administrators don't have to be politic or polite, however personally offended we might be." Demanding that the University of Alaska meet its obligation to free expression, he wrote: "I insist that we remain a certain trumpet on this most precious of constitutional rights."
In the December 2000 issue of the journal Ice-Floe: International Poetry of the Far North, Professor McCarriston of the University of Alaska at Anchorage (UAA), a world-renowned poet, published a sensitive and moving poem, "Indian Girls," about the sexual abuse of children, a subject of intense concern to her. Some Native Alaskan students in her class protested, as was their right, which led various officials at UAA to circulate email about "referring" the case to deans, "resolving" the matter, and "reporting back" on University findings. In late January, FIRE president Alan Charles Kors wrote to President Hamilton, explaining the threats to McCarriston's, and, thus, to everyone's freedom of expression at the University of Alaska. Kors urged him to correct an administrative reaction that posed a fundamental threat to freedom of expression and constitutional rights. Administrators at UAA first informed their president that there was "no investigation" of McCarriston. FIRE shared with Hamilton the documents in its possession, showing that there was either an investigation of McCarriston for having written the poem "Indian Girls," which would be intolerable, or, worse yet, that there was simply a kangaroo court sitting in judgment of her. Hamilton, whose commitment to constitutional rights had been obvious throughout, agreed, and he wrote his memorandum to the chancellors of the campuses at Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Alaska Southeast. He directed them "to effect wide dissemination of this letter," noting that "I would prefer it go forward with your endorsement."
Hamilton went to the heart of the matter in his memorandum. Explicitly discussing the treatment of McCarriston at UAA, he linked it to other recent conflicts at the University of Alaska, when political forces had urged administrators to do something about professors active in environmental causes and about invitations to controversial speakers. With a directness that Kors labeled "rare and precious these days," Hamilton wrote: "What I want to make clear and unambiguous is that responses to complaints or demands for action regarding constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech CANNOT BE QUALIFIED [emphasis his]." He warned against "attempts to assuage anger or demonstrate concern by qualifying our support for free speech," measures that "serve to cloud what must be a clear message," the fullest possible guarantee of constitutional rights. Referring to phrases found in UAA administrative communications to protestors, he instructed the chancellors to cease the practice of seeming to support free speech while, in fact, chilling it: "Noting that, for example, 'The University supports the right of free speech, but we intend to check into this matter,' or 'The University supports the right of free speech, but I have asked Dean X or Provost Y to investigate the circumstances,' is unacceptable. There is nothing to 'check into,' nothing 'to investigate.'"
Linda McCarriston expressed profound satisfaction and relief: "I felt so alone and abandoned before FIRE was at my side. You have restored my faith in the possibility of a free and humane university. I never thought that professors would need 'FIREfighters' to rescue them. I cannot thank FIRE enough for its defense of the Bill of Rights. Because of your unrelenting commitment to academic freedom, President Hamilton has understood the situation and has told the bullies and the censors to back off."
Kors said: "This is a wonderful day for higher education. President Mark Hamilton knows that academic and constitutional freedoms are fragile, easily threatened possessions. His statement is one that every college administrator should read and take to heart. So few leaders of public universities understand that it is both a privilege and duty, not a bother or distraction, to defend the Bill of Rights and academic freedom."
Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE:
Mark R. Hamilton, President of the University of Alaska:
Linda McCarriston, Professor of Creative Writing and Literary Arts: 907-786-4378; firstname.lastname@example.org