FIRE Letter to American University Board of Trustees, July 16, 2002

By July 16, 2002

Note: This letter was sent to each member of the Board of Trustees.

July 16, 2002

George J. Collins, Chair

Board of Trustees

American University Board of Trustees

T. Rowe Price

100 East Pratt Street

Baltimore, Maryland 21202

Dear Mr. Collins,

I write on behalf of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) concerning an issue at American University that should be of the greatest concern to you and the entire Board of Trustees. As our June 11, 2002 letter (attached) explains in greater detail, Ben Wetmore, an undergraduate student at American University, has been targeted and severely punished for his political and satirical activities without even the most minimal respect for his rights. After several attempts to resolve the situation informally, we sent a letter to AU outlining the severe wrongs that the University had committed against one of its own students: attacks on protected speech; the revocation of due process and fundamental fairness; excessive and inappropriate force by campus police; and an intellectual property claim that gravely threatens journalistic freedom. The response that we received (attached) from the University was entirely inadequate, ignoring virtually all of the important facts and evidence of the case and failing to meaningfully address our most important concerns.

Most disturbingly, the University’s response does not even address the fact that the University continues to hold the student’s videotape. Mr. Wetmore’s camcorder was on during the entire incident, and the tape therefore provides the crucial evidence that Mr. Wetmore needs to proceed with his legal claims. Depriving the student of his videotape by force was unlawful at the outset. If the University believed it owned the content of the student’s tape, this is a matter to be settled by a court of law, not an excuse for the University Police to wrest it from a student prior to this legal determination. AU has already received one demand for the tape from an attorney (which it essentially ignored), as well as our original letter, which asked for the return of the tape. AU must know that taking this student’s property constitutes theft and that the failure to return it reveals a shocking unwillingness to cooperate in investigating these very serious allegations.

The letter of response casually dismisses our contention that the student’s harsh treatment was in retaliation against his protected speech. Even without reference to the many accounts from sources at AU who believe that the University is targeting Mr. Wetmore for a website (critical of the administration of AU) that he maintains, there is compelling evidence that his punishment indeed was related precisely to the content of his website. Mr. Wetmore was chastised for and warned about his website many times, even during his judicial hearing on this supposedly unrelated matter. To claim later that his website has nothing to do with his treatment ignores the University’s own actions and statements.

Perhaps the strangest and most dangerous argument made by AU involves the accusation of theft against Mr. Wetmore for videotaping a public event. To summarize briefly the relevant facts, Mr. Wetmore videotaped a speech by Tipper Gore in Bender Arena. There was absolutely no indication whatsoever that this was not allowed, and, indeed, he was permitted to tape the entire event. The University charged him with “theft of property or services or knowingly possessing stolen property” on the basis that he had “stolen” Mrs. Gore’s intellectual property by videotaping her public speech. In case this argument gives anyone pause, I can assure you, as a former intellectual property lawyer, that this interpretation of theft has no validity under federal law and would be fatal to journalism and to basic freedoms if applied to the society at large. The University’s response asserted that he was accused of theft but found guilty of “possessing stolen property.” (Is AU arguing that the camera stole the image and Mr. Wetmore then possessed the fruits of the camera’s crime?) This distinction is insignificant and bizarre. If Mr. Wetmore sold or aired the videotape for commercial purposes, Mrs. Gore might have a claim against him. In the present scenario, however, the images on the tape do not and cannot constitute “stolen property.”

I urge you to read the attached letter. The gravity of this situation should be clear, and we respectfully ask for your help—given your fiduciary responsibility to the University—in dealing with the administration. At an absolute minimum, AU must return the videotape, annul all the findings against the student, reaffirm that students will not be punished for dissent (Mr. Wetmore’s website), and institute serious reforms to its judicial system and campus police. If you wish, we are available to refute the findings against Mr. Wetmore—charge by charge—and to demonstrate why these findings against him are such a threat to liberty on college campuses. FIRE will be moving ahead with its press releases and related legal actions against AU, but we still hope that such steps can be avoided.

On a personal closing note, I am a proud American University alumnus, and I am greatly disappointed and distressed by the University’s treatment of this student. This is simply one of the worst cases of abuse of university power I have seen in my time with FIRE. Media and public interest organizations are lined up to support us on this case. Please help us talk some sense into the administration and to keep AU from sinking deeper into this quagmire. With your help, we can prevent the administration’s bullying and illiberal actions from harming the University any further, and we can restore to the students the freedoms and dignity that should be their right.

Sincerest regards,

 

Greg Lukianoff, Esq.

Director of Legal and Public Advocacy

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

cc:

Benjamin Ladner, President of American University

Gail Short Hanson, Vice President of Campus Life

Mary Kennard, Vice President and University Counsel

Mark Goodman, Executive Director of Student Press Law Center

Bret Zongker, Editor in Chief of the American University Eagle

Faith C. Leonard, Dean of Students

George Whitehouse, President of the American University Alumni Association

Encl.

Schools: American University Cases: American University: Denial of Right to Videotape Public Events