FIRE's Letter to Chancellor Leutze
November 8, 2001
November 8, 2001
Chancellor James Leutze
University of North Carolina Wilmington
601 S. College
Wilmington, NC 28403
Re: [A UNC-W undergraduate student]* and Professor Mike Adams.
Dear Chancellor Leutze:
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, freedom of expression, and, in the case of Professor Mike S. Adams, free speech and right to privacy on America's college campuses.
We are profoundly distressed by the threat to free speech and privacy posed by the administration's handling of the baseless claims of [the university student]. It is doubly offensive that University of North Carolina at Wilmington's capitulation in the face of [the student's] unreasonable demands came after the school had shown its determination to protect the speech and privacy rights of its faculty and students. In this time of national crisis, it is more important than ever that we affirm our cherished Constitution and not abandon freedom, even when faced with the possibility of litigation.
FIRE is in possession of a copy of the e-mail sent by [the student] on September 15, 2001, in which she harshly criticized the U.S. in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Not only was this e-mail addressed generally to the "students and faculty" of UNCW, but it also exhorted the recipients of the e-mail to "forward this e-mail to friends and acquaintances both on and off campus." Professor Adams was a recipient of this e-mail. He forwarded the e-mail to others and wrote the author to show his personal disapproval of the e-mail. (The e-mail and Professor Adams' response is included with this letter.) In short, Professor Adams did what [the student] not only authorized, but invited all recipients to do. To no one's surprise, [the student] received a torrent of criticism from students, faculty, and the public for her words.
Reacting to the overwhelmingly negative response, [the student] accused her critics of intimidation, defamation, false representation, and of threatening her. She demanded university action and access to all of the e-mails Professor Adams had sent around September 15. Here, the University failed to dismiss her claims outright, but did deny her access to Professor Adams' e-mails. After a painstaking back and forth with University Counsel and escalating threats by [the student], the University decided to examine Professor Adams' e-mails, over his vocal objection, in fulfillment of [the student's] request.
The outrageousness of this invasion of privacy and complicity in punishing core political speech should be self-evident. Even by her own evidence, [the student] has no legitimate legal claim on the basis of intimidation, defamation, false representation, or threats. Even if she did have some sort of claim, UNCW should have shown the courage necessary to protect its faculty's freedom of speech and privacy. Instead of rightly refusing any of [the student's] requests, UNCW has legitimized [the student's] frivolous and dangerous legal claims.
[The student's] claimed right to access Adams' e-mails as "public records" cannot be taken seriously and is a perversion of the law that should not have been entertained by University Counsel. More importantly, since she was using this dubious legal argument in an attempt to punish students and faculty for exercising their Free Speech rights, her request should have been rejected out of hand.
The core of [the student's] outrage is simple: People reacted angrily to a political essay that she herself chose to publish and circulate. Adams' role was only to disagree strongly with her opinions and to oblige her request to forward the e-mail. The resulting reaction was a demonstration of the First Amendment at work-but now [the student] seeks to prosecute those who disagree with her. In the interest of political discourse, academic freedom, and a free society, her complaint should have been clearly, forcefully, and immediately rejected. Now UNCW has legitimized her claims by taking action against Professor Adams. In doing this, UNCW has ominously demonstrated that when the most basic rights of students and faculty are threatened, UNCW is not above abandoning them. The chill that this will send into every communication on your campus is palpable.
Perhaps the deepest irony is that UNCW has not insulated itself from this or any other litigation. Instead, it has opened the floodgates to litigation by anyone who objects to the failure of their arguments in free and open discourse. It is a frightening and dangerous precedent.
As you know full well, UNCW is a public university and therefore has an overarching legal obligation, in addition to its moral obligation, to ensure the privacy and First Amendment rights of its faculty and students. Even if no formal retaliation ever takes place against the accused students or Professor Adams, the mere threat of action promotes self-censorship among faculty and students alike, chilling both protected speech and academic freedom. This, of course, runs completely contrary to the role and constitutional obligations of a great university. As should be clear, a university in which students and faculty have any fear of reprisal for discussing controversial topics is one that is rendered impotent to address society's most crucial issues.
Accordingly, FIRE requests that you and your administration: 1) Affirm to Professor Adams that he has committed no wrong by either disagreeing with [the student] or by circulating her own, unaltered words.
2) Apologize in appropriate terms to Professor Adams for this invasion of his privacy and state unequivocally that UNCW will not violate the privacy rights of students and faculty.
3) Reject [the student's] claims as contrivances intended to punish students and faculty for the exercise of their First Amendment rights.
4) Permit no further university retaliation against students or faculty for their disagreement with any person's views, in the interest of full and robust discourse, and in fulfillment of your constitutional and moral obligations.
FIRE hopes we are able to resolve this dispute discreetly and amicably. However, FIRE will stay with this case with persistence and resolution. We are categorically committed to using all of our media and legal resources to support Professor Adams and to see this process to a just and moral conclusion. We urge you to examine the FIRE website at www.thefire.org. Please spare UNCW the embarrassment of fighting against the Bill of Rights and against the canons of free and open discourse, by which it is legally and morally bound. As we all have learned immeasurably in these recent times, a free society is a precious thing, not to be abandoned.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Director of Legal and Public Advocacy
cc. John Cavanaugh, Provost and Vice Chancellor
Harold M. White, Jr., University Counsel
Terrance M. Curran, Dean of Students
Mimi Cunningham, University Relations
James Corcoran, Chairman, Board of Trustees
Franklin L. Block, Board of Trustees
Alfred P. Carlton, Jr., Board of Trustees
Larry J. Dagenhart, Board of Trustees
Margaret B. Dardess, Board of Trustees
Hannah D. Gage, Board of Trustees
Owen G. Kenan, Board of Trustees
Juanita Kreps, Board of Trustees
Mark W. Lanier, Board of Trustees
Katherine Bell Moore, Board of Trustees
Jay Robinson, Board of Trustees
Marcus W. Williams, Board of Trustees
Denis Worley, Board of Trustees
* FIRE has granted the request of the undergraduate's father that her name be deleted in the interests of sparing her from further public controversy.