Clemson student charged for rude e-mail

By June 1, 2010

Here’s another in a long list of overreactions by school officials to young people saying things in a way others would rather they didn’t.

I recently wrote about a case at Hinds Community College, the largest such institution in Mississippi, where an adult student was charged with "flagrant disrespect" for uttering a curse word after class. The charges were eventually dropped but not before the student was forced to testify at a hearing.

Now we turn to Clemson University in South Carolina, where a student got in trouble for using rude language in e-mails to an administrator during an online conversation.

Undergraduate William Kirwan was charged with "disorderly conduct," "harassment," "failure to comply with official request" and "misuse of computer" for using "language and tone" in e-mails found by school officials to be unacceptable, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a nonprofit foundation that advocates for free speech on campus.

Kirwan is head of the student organization called Central Spirit. An administrator, Laura McMaster, was trying to persuade him to participate in Clemson’s Fall Organizations Fair.

Kirwan did not want to, saying that past participation had not helped the organization recruit members. In a May 13 e-mail to McMaster with a copy to administrator Marty Kern, he wrote: "I’m not going to let you bully the organization into doing the things you want us to do or perceive as important."

He also stated that he trusted six previous Central Spirit presidents "over yours any day of the week and twice on Sunday," and wrote that McMaster must have been "smoking crack" before trying to get him to participate in the fair.

Kern responded, saying that Kirwan’s language was "unacceptable" and, in a letter, ordered him to appear at a hearing and listed the charges mentioned above.

Kirwan refused to attend a hearing and asked FIRE for help. FIRE sent a letter to Clemson University President Jim Barker, saying that the charges violated Kirwan’s First Amendment rights of free speech. General Counsel Clay Steadman responded in his own letter that charges were being dropped and agreeing that the First Amendment "protects speech even when it is rude or offensive."

It’s good that someone involved in this case understands the First Amendment.

Schools: Clemson University