FIRE letter to University of Central Florida

By on April 26, 2013

April 26, 2013

President John C. Hitt
University of Central Florida
Office of the President
P.O. Box 160002
Orlando, Florida 32816

Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (407-823-2264)

Dear President Hitt:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (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, academic freedom, due process, freedom of speech, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses. Our website, thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and activities.

FIRE is deeply concerned by the threat to free speech presented by the University of Central Florida’s (UCF’s) suspension of Professor Hyung-il Jung on the basis of a joke made during a review session and its current investigation into his expression. By all appearances, Jung’s speech is protected under the Constitution, and UCF is violating his First Amendment rights by subjecting him to this investigation.

This is our understanding of the facts. Please inform us if you believe we are in error.

This past Tuesday, April 23, according to an April 25 article in the Orlando Sentinel, Jung, a lecturer in UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management, held a review session with “about 25 students” in an accounting course he is teaching this semester. The Sentinel reports:

[Jung] told the Sentinel that he made a comment toward the end of the review session that was meant as a joke. The material was difficult, and he said he noticed the pained look on students’ faces.

“What I said was: ‘This question is very difficult. It looks like you guys are being slowly suffocated by these questions. Am I on a killing spree or what?’” Jung said.

A student in the course complained to UCF, after which Jung was placed on paid administrative leave and barred from the UCF campus. Jung is additionally prohibited from contacting any of his students, and is forbidden from administering final exams in his course. The UCF Police Department is reportedly involved in the investigation into Jung’s expression.

UCF spokesperson Chad Binette called Jung’s remarks “completely inappropriate,” apparently placing them in the context of last week’s bombings at the running of the Boston Marathon, as well as the suicide of UCF student James Oliver Seevakumaran, whose dorm room was found to contain more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition, in addition to homemade bombs and firearms. Binette stated, according to the Sentinel:

“The student who reported the comment to us interpreted it as a threat to her class, and we will always take any reported threat very seriously,” Binette said. “This is not an acceptable topic to joke about, particularly in light of recent events around the country and on our campus.” [Emphasis added.]

The Sentinel also reported that “a group of almost 20 students e-mailed a letter to the University of Central Florida administration on Thursday explaining that they knew the comment that Jung made during a study session was meant as a joke.”

If the Sentinel has accurately reported the content of Jung’s remarks, UCF has severely violated Jung’s First Amendment rights and dangerously chilled free expression at UCF.

First, it is a matter of settled law that the First Amendment is fully binding on public institutions like UCF. See Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 268–69 (1981) (“With respect to persons entitled to be there, our cases leave no doubt that the First Amendment rights of speech and association extend to the campuses of state universities.”); Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972) (internal citation omitted) (“[T]he precedents of this Court leave no room for the view that, because of the acknowledged need for order, First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large. Quite to the contrary, ‘the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.’”).

Further, the Supreme Court has defined “true threats” as “those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.” Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343, 359 (2003) (emphasis added). Jung’s comments fall far short of this threshold, as evidenced by the fact that roughly 20 students at the review session—or roughly 80 percent of the students present—clearly understood the remarks were meant as a joke and posed no threat, and wrote a letter to the university saying so.

Moreover, treating Jung’s joke as a threat ignores the plain fact that, as reported, the statement itself was not actually a threat. It is phrased in the present tense and is clearly an exaggerated metaphor. Even if it were a literally true statement (it was not; no students were suffocated, nor did Jung go on a “killing spree”) it still would not be a threat but rather a description. Legal knowledge is not required to make this determination; a grade-school understanding of grammar would suffice.

Especially in light of the fact that apparently the vast majority of Jung’s students understood that he was not making a threat, Binette’s statement that “[t]his is not an acceptable topic to joke about, particularly in light of recent events around the country and on our campus,” is dangerously irresponsible and profoundly chills student and faculty expression. The idea that certain uncomfortable topics are entirely off-limits to humor is an affront to the First Amendment and a sentiment UCF must publicly and forcefully renounce.

FIRE does not discount UCF’s duties in maintaining a safe environment for its students and faculty and responding quickly and responsibly to genuine threats. But UCF, as a public institution, has a fundamental responsibility to protect the First Amendment rights of its students and faculty, and must be especially vigilant about doing so when recent tragic events pressure it to take reactionary measures against speech that may cause offense or discomfort. Citing the bombings in Boston and the recent tragedy on the UCF campus as justification for Jung’s punishment is at best a misguided overreaction to protected expression, and at worst a cynical exploitation of genuine human tragedy. That UCF has apparently employed its police department in the investigation of Jung’s protected expression makes this incident all the more regrettable, and its chilling effect all the more profound.

We remind UCF that the investigation of protected speech, once it is determined to be protected, is a violation of the rights of the person being investigated. Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, 245, 248 (1957).

If UCF is unable to provide a legitimate justification for Jung’s punishment beyond that which has been reported thus far, FIRE asks that you immediately terminate the investigation into his expression and reverse his suspension from the campus and all related punishments. Further, we ask that UCF make clear to all university community members that it will fully defend their First Amendment rights, and that it will never punish them for the protected expression under the guise of preserving campus safety.

We ask that you resolve Jung’s case as quickly as possible and immediately inform Jung of the outcome, and respond to FIRE by May 3, 2013.

Sincerely,

Will Creeley
Director of Legal and Public Advocacy

cc:
Tony G. Waldrop, Provost and Executive Vice President
Abraham Pizam, Dean, Rosen College of Hospitality Management
Chief Richard Beary, UCF Police Department

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Schools: University of Central Florida Cases: University of Central Florida: Professor Suspended for In-Class Joke