FIRE's Letter to GW's President Trachtenberg
May 14, 2002
May 14, 2002
President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
George Washington University
Rice Hall, Room 802
2121 I Street NW
Washington, DC 20052
Dear President Trachtenberg:
As you can see from our Directors and Board of Advisors, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites leaders in the fields of civil rights and civil liberties, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, due process, and academic freedom on America's college campuses. Our web page, www.thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and activities.
I wish to express our profound concern about a grave threat to free speech, due process, fundamental fairness, and academic freedom at George Washington University. While FIRE continues to investigate, this is our current understanding of the facts. Since February of this year GWU has operated, through its agent, Pinkerton Security, a "compliance hotline." Faculty members were urged to call this hotline to make allegations of crimes and other breaches of campus codes and ethics supposedly committed by colleagues and students. Faculty were also assured that they could make these allegations anonymously. The hotline was put in place without any prior notice; faculty were not consulted regarding either the need for such a hotline or the protocols of its operation. Under the hotline policy, when an allegation is received, Pinkerton opens a file on the accused faculty member or student, which process initiates an investigation. There is no procedural or substantive guarantee whatsoever that the accused individual will be aware of any investigation or of any records kept about the matter, or that the investigation will be conducted using acceptable procedures.
The threat that this hotline poses to fundamental fairness, justice, and common decency at GWU, and its extraordinary potential for abuse by faculty and administrators, should have been obvious. No university can hope to pursue its educational mission in an atmosphere where collegiality, open discourse, and robust debate are replaced by distrust, self-censorship, and suspicion. A university in which students and faculty live under fear of arbitrary and secret accusations by anonymous informers, and of malicious and unanticipated reprisals, cannot possibly foster honest and collegial debate or a sense of community‚Ä"let alone intellectual innovation and serious scholarship.
While the GWU administration has already wronged its students and faculty by adopting this policy, secretly no less, the University still has the chance to redeem itself by eliminating the hotline and disposing of any information obtained during its operation. Anonymous accusations and investigations have always been the hallmark of totalitarian societies and are unworthy of a great liberal arts university. This policy must be eliminated, not only to preserve the basics rights and freedoms of students and faculty, but also to prevent the irreversible chilling of speech and intellectual inquiry at GWU.
FIRE sincerely hopes that this wrong can be corrected swiftly and amicably. FIRE will pursue this case, however, with persistence and resolution. FIRE is categorically committed to using all of its resources to eliminate this type of policy wherever it may arise, in order to preserve basic rights and liberties, and common decency, on America's campuses. We are prepared to fight against this policy of anonymous accusation with the principle that "sunlight is the best disinfectant," and to use all of our media and legal resources to this end. We hope, however, that this will not be necessary, and that GWU will reaffirm, without delay, its commitment to being an honest, just, open, and decent institution.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Director of Legal and Public Advocacy
Louis H. Katz, Vice President and Treasurer
Lilien F. Robinson, Professor and Chairperson, Faculty Senate Executive Committee
Dennis Blumer, Vice President and General Counsel
John Banzhaf, Professor of Law