Letter to Florida Gulf Coast University President Wilson G. Bradshaw, July 22, 2011
July 22, 2011
July 22, 2011
Wilson G. Bradshaw, President
Florida Gulf Coast University
Office of the President
10501 FGCU Boulevard South
Fort Myers, Florida 33965
Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (239-590-1059)
Dear President Bradshaw:
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; thefire.org) unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, free speech, legal equality, due process, freedom of conscience, and academic freedom on America's college campuses.
FIRE writes you today out of concern about the threat to freedom of expression presented by Florida Gulf Coast University's (FGCU's) treatment of student Dylan ("DJ") Lintelman as a Resident Assistant (RA) at FGCU in 2010. Associate Director for the Office of Housing and Residence Life (OHRL) Jameson Moschella terminated Lintelman for reasons including Lintelman's "Facebook messages" to another student and "Sharing your dissatisfaction about OHRL in the presence of residents ...." These reasons constitute impermissible violations of Lintelman's freedom of expression, and they suggest that the entire termination is based on Lintelman's protected expression.
This is our understanding of the facts. Please inform us if you believe we are in error. Moschella began to criticize Lintelman for his expression on Facebook as early as July 13, 2010, according to Moschella's own record of interactions between himself and Lintelman. Lintelman allegedly had written to another student in June 2010 that she was "nothing but a f-----g c--t" because she had supported the FGCU student government's impeachment of certain student government members who allegedly had smoked marijuana. Around the same time, Lintelman also had expressed to fellow students his personal opinions regarding alleged pressure from FGCU administrators on student government members to vote in favor of impeachment, as well as his opinions regarding possible disciplinary retaliation against him when he had been erroneously accused of drinking alcohol while on duty (he had passed a breathalyzer test to prove his innocence).
In their meeting on July 13, 2010, Moschella also told Lintelman that an RA "is expected to be an Ambassador for our department and University." Moschella added that Lintelman having stated his opinion to another student "conflicts with that very idea of [Lintelman] being an Ambassador." According to Lintelman's account of their conversation, Moschella told him that "as an employee of FGCU I had no right to speak my mind against the administration on Facebook or in a [p]ublic [f]orum whether I agreed or not" and that Moschella had "25 other alternate RA's willing to take my spot" who would keep their mouths shut.
Moschella and Lintelman spoke again on July 21, 2010. Moschella's record of the conversation shows that he again raised the issue of being an "Ambassador for our program." He told Lintelman that Lintelman could remain employed as an RA, but only on "a probationary status" and only if Lintelman agreed to uphold the "Ambassador" and "social role model" portions of the RA position requirements.
Concerned about his right to free expression, Lintelman would not agree to such terms as Moschella had been interpreting them, so on August 3, 2010, Moschella terminated Lintelman as an RA.
On July 21 and 29, 2010, Lintelman filed complaints against Moschella with FGCU's Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance (OIEC), alleging "retaliation." OIEC Investigator Angelette Arias investigated the complaints. Arias' report, dated September 10, 2010, rejected Moschella's reason for termination based on Lintelman's expression on Facebook. Arias, however, upheld Lintelman's termination due to his "sharing his dissatisfaction about OHRL in the presence of residents."
FGCU may not punish a student employee for engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment. That the First Amendment's protections fully extend to public universities such as FGCU has long been settled law. See, e.g., Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972) (citation omitted) ("[T]he precedents of this Court leave no room for the view that, because of the acknowledged need for order, First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large. Quite to the contrary, ‘the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools'"); Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 268-69 (1981) ("With respect to persons entitled to be there, our cases leave no doubt that the First Amendment rights of speech and association extend to the campuses of state universities"). In addition, Lintelman's May 5, 2010, RA Performance Evaluation clearly states that "It's fine to vent to friends" about his concerns about his treatment by FGCU.
To the extent that Lintelman's termination was based on his protected expression, either directly or pretextually, FGCU likely has violated his First Amendment rights.
A student employee, particularly an RA who lives in a residence hall, cannot reasonably be expected to voice the university's preferred talking points at all times. Rather, student employees must be allowed to be students and to speak on matters of public concern. This "breathing room" certainly includes Lintelman's expressions of criticism of the university for its alleged involvement in student government impeachment proceedings. If all student employees were required to be steadfast "ambassadors" of the university at all hours, as Moschella requires of RAs, FGCU would effectively prevent a significant proportion of students from criticizing anything about the university. A university ceases to be free when student employees are constantly in fear of termination-and thus losing the income many of them need in order to stay in school-merely for registering complaints about some aspect of university life.
Moschella's unreasonable expectations for RAs harm the marketplace of ideas at FGCU and prevent and inhibit students from making efforts to voice criticism that might improve student life at the university. FIRE requests that FGCU communicate to its student employees, particularly its RAs, that although they are employees, they are nevertheless free to criticize the university in a wide variety of circumstances and to speak on matters of public concern. Further, FIRE requests that you reconsider the basis of Lintelman's termination and withdraw the termination letter from his employee file.
We have enclosed a signed FERPA waiver from Dylan Lintelman, permitting you to freely discuss his case with FIRE.
We hope this situation can be resolved amicably and swiftly. We ask for a response to our letter by August 5, 2011.
Vice President of Programs
J. Michael Rollo, Vice President for Student Affairs, Florida Gulf Coast University
Jameson Moschella, Associate Director, Residence Education, Florida Gulf Coast University
Jimmy Myers, Director, Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, Florida Gulf Coast University