FIRE's Letter to President Rao
October 23, 2001
October 23, 2001
Mr. Michael Rao, President
Office of the President
Central Michigan University
Mount Pleasant, MI 48859
Dear President Rao:
As you can see from our Directors and Board of Advisors, 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, due process and - as in this case - freedom of speech on America's college campuses. Our web page, www.thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and activities.
FIRE is profoundly concerned by the threat to free speech posed by a recent event on your campus. This is our understanding of the facts. On October 8, in Emmons Hall, four roommates-Don Pasco, Jeff Cech, Adam Trumble, and Nick Dear-placed an American flag, along with various pictures and articles relating to the war on terrorism, on the front of their door. Residence Assistant Kari Buchanan told them that they were to remove the items from their door because, she felt, the display was "offensive" to some students. Two days later, after an article on the incident ran in the campus newspaper (CM-Life), Residence Hall Director Albert Nowak and two other administrators visited the four students, telling them that they could repost all their images except things they deemed "hate related items and … profanity." On October 17, a letter ran in the campus newspaper, in which Senior Officer for Residences and Auxiliary Services John Fisher, along with other administrators, defended the policy banning "profanity or vulgarity."
In doing this, Central Michigan University has denied these individuals their Constitutional right to free expression. In light of the national crisis ensuing from last month's tragic events, it is crucially important, now more than ever, that we affirm our cherished Constitution and ideals and not abandon them in order to suppress views that some may find objectionable.
As you know, Central Michigan University is a public institution, and therefore has an overarching legal obligation, in addition to its moral obligation, to ensure the First Amendment rights of its students. Central Michigan University cannot and must not tell its students that it will only permit opinions that espouse a predetermined viewpoint. The First Amendment does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech. Indeed, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial. For this reason, Central Michigan University must vigorously guard against policies under which a cry of 'offense' is sufficient to silence students.
Accordingly, FIRE requests that Central Michigan University:
1) Affirm that the First Amendment rights of Don Pasco, Jeff Cech, Adam Trumble, and Nick Dear are fully protected by your University, and that no policy or procedure will be used to circumvent those protected rights;
2) Guarantee that the four students will receive no further retaliation for the expression of their constitutionally protected opinions on this or any other topic, past or present; and
3) Publicly declare that Central Michigan University recognizes postings on doors as a constitutionally protected form of expression.
Universities should encourage robust, impassioned discussion of their students' deeply held beliefs, and should not shy away from controversy. A university in which students have any fear of reprisal for expressing controversial opinions is one that is rendered impotent to address society's most crucial issues.
FIRE hopes we will be able to resolve this dispute discreetly and amicably. However, FIRE will stay with this case with persistence and resolve. We are categorically committed to using all of our media and legal resources to support the involved students and to see this process to a just and moral conclusion. Please spare Central Michigan University the embarrassment of fighting against the Bill of Rights 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