FIRE’s Letter to GW’s President Trachtenberg

By May 14, 2002

May 14, 2002

President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg

George Washington University

Rice Hall, Room 802

2121 I Street NW

Washington, DC 20052

Dear President Trachtenberg:

As you can see from our Directors and Board of Advisors, 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, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, due
process, and academic freedom on America’s college campuses. Our web
page, www.thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity
and activities.

I wish to express our profound concern about a grave threat to
free speech, due process, fundamental fairness, and academic freedom at
George Washington University. While FIRE continues to investigate, this
is our current understanding of the facts. Since February of this year
GWU has operated, through its agent, Pinkerton Security, a “compliance
hotline.” Faculty members were urged to call this hotline to make
allegations of crimes and other breaches of campus codes and ethics
supposedly committed by colleagues and students. Faculty were also
assured that they could make these allegations anonymously. The hotline
was put in place without any prior notice; faculty were not consulted
regarding either the need for such a hotline or the protocols of its
operation. Under the hotline policy, when an allegation is received,
Pinkerton opens a file on the accused faculty member or student, which
process initiates an investigation. There is no procedural or
substantive guarantee whatsoever that the accused individual will be
aware of any investigation or of any records kept about the matter, or
that the investigation will be conducted using acceptable procedures.

The threat that this hotline poses to fundamental fairness,
justice, and common decency at GWU, and its extraordinary potential for
abuse by faculty and administrators, should have been obvious. No
university can hope to pursue its educational mission in an atmosphere
where collegiality, open discourse, and robust debate are replaced by
distrust, self-censorship, and suspicion. A university in which
students and faculty live under fear of arbitrary and secret
accusations by anonymous informers, and of malicious and unanticipated
reprisals, cannot possibly foster honest and collegial debate or a
sense of community—let alone intellectual innovation and serious
scholarship.

While the GWU administration has already wronged its students and
faculty by adopting this policy, secretly no less, the University still
has the chance to redeem itself by eliminating the hotline and
disposing of any information obtained during its operation. Anonymous
accusations and investigations have always been the hallmark of
totalitarian societies and are unworthy of a great liberal arts
university. This policy must be eliminated, not only to preserve the
basics rights and freedoms of students and faculty, but also to prevent
the irreversible chilling of speech and intellectual inquiry at GWU.

FIRE sincerely hopes that this wrong can be corrected swiftly
and amicably. FIRE will pursue this case, however, with persistence and
resolution. FIRE is categorically committed to using all of its
resources to eliminate this type of policy wherever it may arise, in
order to preserve basic rights and liberties, and common decency, on
America’s campuses. We are prepared to fight against this policy of
anonymous accusation with the principle that “sunlight is the best
disinfectant,” and to use all of our media and legal resources to this
end. We hope, however, that this will not be necessary, and that GWU
will reaffirm, without delay, its commitment to being an honest, just,
open, and decent institution.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Greg Lukianoff

Director of Legal and Public Advocacy

cc:

Louis H. Katz, Vice President and Treasurer

Lilien F. Robinson, Professor and Chairperson, Faculty Senate Executive Committee

Dennis Blumer, Vice President and General Counsel

John Banzhaf, Professor of Law

Schools: George Washington University Cases: George Washington University: Secret Informer Line