FIRE’s Letter to Chancellor Leutze

By November 8, 2001

November 8, 2001

Chancellor James Leutze

University of North Carolina Wilmington

Alderman Hall

601 S. College

Wilmington, NC 28403

Re: [A UNC-W undergraduate student]* and Professor Mike Adams.

Dear Chancellor Leutze:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites civil
rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public
intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf
of liberty, legal equality, freedom of expression, and, in the case of
Professor Mike S. Adams, free speech and right to privacy on America’s
college campuses.

We are profoundly distressed by the threat to free speech and privacy
posed by the administration’s handling of the baseless claims of [the
university student]. It is doubly offensive that University of North
Carolina at Wilmington’s capitulation in the face of [the student's]
unreasonable demands came after the school had shown its determination
to protect the speech and privacy rights of its faculty and students.
In this time of national crisis, it is more important than ever that we
affirm our cherished Constitution and not abandon freedom, even when
faced with the possibility of litigation.

FIRE is in possession of a copy of the e-mail sent by [the
student] on September 15, 2001, in which she harshly criticized the
U.S. in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Not only was this e-mail
addressed generally to the “students and faculty” of UNCW, but it also
exhorted the recipients of the e-mail to “forward this e-mail to
friends and acquaintances both on and off campus.” Professor Adams was
a recipient of this e-mail. He forwarded the e-mail to others and wrote
the author to show his personal disapproval of the e-mail. (The e-mail
and Professor Adams’ response is included with this letter.) In short,
Professor Adams did what [the student] not only authorized, but invited
all recipients to do. To no one’s surprise, [the student] received a
torrent of criticism from students, faculty, and the public for her
words.

Reacting to the overwhelmingly negative response, [the student] accused
her critics of intimidation, defamation, false representation, and of
threatening her. She demanded university action and access to all of
the e-mails Professor Adams had sent around September 15. Here, the
University failed to dismiss her claims outright, but did deny her
access to Professor Adams’ e-mails. After a painstaking back and forth
with University Counsel and escalating threats by [the student], the
University decided to examine Professor Adams’ e-mails, over his vocal
objection, in fulfillment of [the student's] request.

The outrageousness of this invasion of privacy and complicity
in punishing core political speech should be self-evident. Even by her
own evidence, [the student] has no legitimate legal claim on the basis
of intimidation, defamation, false representation, or threats. Even if
she did have some sort of claim, UNCW should have shown the courage
necessary to protect its faculty’s freedom of speech and privacy.
Instead of rightly refusing any of [the student's] requests, UNCW has
legitimized [the student's] frivolous and dangerous legal claims.

[The student's] claimed right to access Adams’ e-mails as
“public records” cannot be taken seriously and is a perversion of the
law that should not have been entertained by University Counsel. More
importantly, since she was using this dubious legal argument in an
attempt to punish students and faculty for exercising their Free Speech
rights, her request should have been rejected out of hand.

The core of [the student's] outrage is simple: People reacted
angrily to a political essay that she herself chose to publish and
circulate. Adams’ role was only to disagree strongly with her opinions
and to oblige her request to forward the e-mail. The resulting reaction
was a demonstration of the First Amendment at work-but now [the
student] seeks to prosecute those who disagree with her. In the
interest of political discourse, academic freedom, and a free society,
her complaint should have been clearly, forcefully, and immediately
rejected. Now UNCW has legitimized her claims by taking action against
Professor Adams. In doing this, UNCW has ominously demonstrated that
when the most basic rights of students and faculty are threatened, UNCW
is not above abandoning them. The chill that this will send into every
communication on your campus is palpable.

Perhaps the deepest irony is that UNCW has not insulated itself from
this or any other litigation. Instead, it has opened the floodgates to
litigation by anyone who objects to the failure of their arguments in
free and open discourse. It is a frightening and dangerous precedent.

As you know full well, UNCW is a public university and
therefore has an overarching legal obligation, in addition to its moral
obligation, to ensure the privacy and First Amendment rights of its
faculty and students. Even if no formal retaliation ever takes place
against the accused students or Professor Adams, the mere threat of
action promotes self-censorship among faculty and students alike,
chilling both protected speech and academic freedom. This, of course,
runs completely contrary to the role and constitutional obligations of
a great university. As should be clear, a university in which students
and faculty have any fear of reprisal for discussing controversial
topics is one that is rendered impotent to address society’s most
crucial issues.

Accordingly, FIRE requests that you and your administration:
1) Affirm to Professor Adams that he has committed no wrong by either
disagreeing with [the student] or by circulating her own, unaltered
words.

2) Apologize in appropriate terms to Professor Adams for this invasion
of his privacy and state unequivocally that UNCW will not violate the
privacy rights of students and faculty.

3) Reject [the student's] claims as contrivances intended to punish
students and faculty for the exercise of their First Amendment rights.

4) Permit no further university retaliation against students or faculty
for their disagreement with any person’s views, in the interest of full
and robust discourse, and in fulfillment of your constitutional and
moral obligations.

FIRE hopes we are able to resolve this dispute discreetly and amicably.
However, FIRE will stay with this case with persistence and resolution.
We are categorically committed to using all of our media and legal
resources to support Professor Adams and to see this process to a just
and moral conclusion. We urge you to examine the FIRE website at
www.thefire.org. Please spare UNCW the embarrassment of fighting
against the Bill of Rights and against the canons of free and open
discourse, by which it is legally and morally bound. As we all have
learned immeasurably in these recent times, a free society is a
precious thing, not to be abandoned.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Greg Lukianoff

Director of Legal and Public Advocacy

cc. John Cavanaugh, Provost and Vice Chancellor

Harold M. White, Jr., University Counsel

Terrance M. Curran, Dean of Students

Mimi Cunningham, University Relations

James Corcoran, Chairman, Board of Trustees

Franklin L. Block, Board of Trustees

Alfred P. Carlton, Jr., Board of Trustees

Larry J. Dagenhart, Board of Trustees

Margaret B. Dardess, Board of Trustees

Hannah D. Gage, Board of Trustees

Owen G. Kenan, Board of Trustees

Juanita Kreps, Board of Trustees

Mark W. Lanier, Board of Trustees

Katherine Bell Moore, Board of Trustees

Jay Robinson, Board of Trustees

Marcus W. Williams, Board of Trustees

Denis Worley, Board of Trustees

* FIRE has granted the request of the
undergraduate’s father that her name be deleted in the interests of
sparing her from further public controversy.

Schools: University of North Carolina – Wilmington