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After FIRE Letter, Colorado State Gives Prof Limited Access to Email

By on January 22, 2014

Last week, Colorado State University – Pueblo (CSU-Pueblo) abruptly cut off Professor Tim McGettigan’s access to his email account after he sent an email to students and faculty criticizing the university system’s leadership. McGettigan was told that he had violated the school’s policy against using email “to intimidate, threaten, or harass other individuals”—a policy that allows for account deactivation in situations where safety is at risk. But as FIRE pointed out in a letter (PDF) sent yesterday, McGettigan’s email comprised only constitutionally protected speech, not threats or harassment. Today, McGettigan’s email account has been partially reactivated, but he still cannot send emails to large groups of university community members.

McGettigan’s email criticized Colorado State University System Chancellor Michael V. Martin for his plans to terminate the positions of dozens of school employees, purposefully using imagery from the Ludlow Massacre, a 1914 incident resulting in the violent deaths of numerous striking mineworkers and their families. But far from threatening anyone, McGettigan was expressing his outrage at the potential negative ramifications of Martin’s actions by likening those actions to a massacre.

In an email sent to Inside Higher Ed Monday, a CSU-Pueblo spokeswoman relayed a statement from President Lesley Di Mare in which she attempted to justify the school’s actions by recalling recent school tragedies:

Considering the lessons we’ve all learned from Columbine, Virginia Tech, and more recently Arapahoe High School, I can only say that the security of our students, faculty, and staff are our top priority. … CSU-Pueblo is facing some budget challenges right now, which has sparked impassioned criticism and debate across our campus community. That’s entirely appropriate, and everyone on campus – no matter how you feel about the challenges at hand – should be able to engage in that activity in an environment that is free of intimidation, harassment, and threats.

Indeed, McGettigan did share his “impassioned criticism” without “intimidation, harassment, [or] threats,” and Di Mare’s suggestion that McGettigan may be on the verge of a violent outburst is unfounded and alarming. The Colorado Conference of the American Association of University Professors wrote in response that “associating peaceful and legitimate dissent with the violent intentions of deranged gunmen is the very height of absurdity and reveals an appalling lack of professional judgment in a university president.” FIRE’s letter also noted that Di Mare’s analogy is inappropriate and further pointed out that if McGettigan were in fact a danger to the community, simply deactivating his email account while allowing him to continue teaching would be grossly negligent.

The Pueblo Chieftain reported today that while McGettigan now has access to his email account, the university is still blocking his ability to send emails to many recipients at once. If that sounds like a half-baked effort to fix things, get this: McGettigan only learned of this partial restoration indirectly, since the school notified him of the partial email reactivation via email—the very email account he had quit checking since they told him it was deactivated!

While CSU-Pueblo has begun to recognize its obviously unconstitutional error, maintaining restrictions on McGettigan’s account still constitutes punishment for constitutionally protected speech. This is unacceptable. What’s more, punishing McGettigan for speaking out harms the entire CSU-Pueblo community: Unless and until the university fully restores McGettigan’s account and rescinds its charge against him, its actions will likely deter other faculty and staff from fully exercising their free speech rights.

Check back to The Torch for updates and read FIRE’s full letter to CSU-Pueblo here (PDF).

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Schools: Colorado State University – Pueblo Cases: Colorado State University – Pueblo: Professor’s Email Access Blocked After Message Protesting Layoffs