Annoy UNC to silence its profs

June 23, 2011

If you’re wondering how solid UNC’s commitment to free speech is, the verdict is in: Not very. North Carolina’s flagship university will defend your right to speak out — until the higher-ups get tired of doing so.

UNC Professor Emeritus Elliot Cramer found this out the hard way when his efforts to promote animal welfare at shelters in North Carolina drew the ire of a New Yorker named Joseph Villarosa. Their dispute remained private until Villarosa began to relentlessly complain to UNC that Cramer had an e-mail address and Web page on UNC’s servers — a privilege UNC extends to all emeritus professors.

UNC General Counsel Leslie Chambers Strohm eventually got fed up with Villarosa’s complaining. On April 20, 2011, she informed Villarosa via e-mail that after visiting Cramer’s Web page, she had seen "no reference to you [Villarosa] whatsoever," that Villarosa’s recourse lay "directly with Dr. Cramer," and that the dispute was "not a University matter." Strohm was right, of course — UNC had nothing to do with the dispute.

Case closed, right? Not quite.

Despite telling Villarosa that the matter was none of UNC’s business, Strohm had written to Cramer earlier that same day and ordered him to remove a link from his UNC-based Web page that linked to another Web page that linked to yet another Web page that was critical of Villarosa. Cramer quickly complied, but it was too late: Chancellor Holden Thorp wrote Cramer a week later telling him that the dispute had taken too much of UNC’s precious time. Cramer’s network access was revoked.

Cramer then turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I work, for help. FIRE wrote to UNC, pointing out that it was not Cramer but Villarosa who drew UNC into the dispute, and that Cramer had done everything that UNC officials had asked of him. Strohm responded that UNC had no responsibility to provide network access to "ex-employees" who "undermine the use of university resources." Strohm even managed to avoid identifying Cramer as a "professor" in her response to FIRE, despite the fact that UNC lists him as a professor emeritus on its own Web site.

By treating Cramer in this way, UNC has set a terrible precedent for free speech and academic freedom. These important rights allow professors to conduct research and advance ideas without fear of punishment or pressure from outside forces, who for political or ideological reasons might like some professors silenced. If a university is to fulfill its role as a true "marketplace of ideas," its faculty must not be subject to the whims of the loudest or most persistent individuals.

The fact that Cramer is a professor emeritus doesn’t change the analysis. In many professions, once you retire, your work is over. But as any academic will tell you, that’s not always true for retired professors, who frequently continue their research and scholarship. UNC’s own faculty handbook states that retired professors are "continuing members of the university community" who can enjoy office and lab space in order to continue their work, as well as participate in faculty governance and on thesis committees.

Universities — including UNC — recognize that active faculty members require free speech and academic freedom. Why, then, are these protections any less important for emeritus professors fulfilling many of the same functions?

Instead of defending Cramer’s free speech rights, UNC has alerted would-be censors nationwide that if you wish to silence a UNC faculty member, all you need to do is be annoying and persistent enough to get administrators to punish your target. UNC and North Carolina will be poorer for it.

Robert L. Shibley of Apex, an attorney, is senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; thefire.org

Schools: University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Cases: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Heckler’s Veto Results in Termination of Emeritus Professor’s Network Access