FIRE’s Letter to President Rao

By October 23, 2001

October 23, 2001

Mr. Michael Rao, President
Office of the President
Central Michigan University
Warriner Hall
Mount Pleasant, MI 48859

Dear President Rao:

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

FIRE is profoundly concerned by the threat to free speech posed
by a recent event on your campus. This is our understanding of the
facts. On October 8, in Emmons Hall, four roommates-Don Pasco, Jeff
Cech, Adam Trumble, and Nick Dear-placed an American flag, along with
various pictures and articles relating to the war on terrorism, on the
front of their door. Residence Assistant Kari Buchanan told them that
they were to remove the items from their door because, she felt, the
display was “offensive” to some students. Two days later, after an
article on the incident ran in the campus newspaper (CM-Life),
Residence Hall Director Albert Nowak and two other administrators
visited the four students, telling them that they could repost all
their images except things they deemed “hate related items and …
profanity.” On October 17, a letter ran in the campus newspaper, in
which Senior Officer for Residences and Auxiliary Services John Fisher,
along with other administrators, defended the policy banning “profanity
or vulgarity.”

In doing this, Central Michigan University has denied these individuals
their Constitutional right to free expression. In light of the national
crisis ensuing from last month’s tragic events, it is crucially
important, now more than ever, that we affirm our cherished
Constitution and ideals and not abandon them in order to suppress views
that some may find objectionable.

As you know, Central Michigan University is a public institution, and
therefore has an overarching legal obligation, in addition to its moral
obligation, to ensure the First Amendment rights of its students.
Central Michigan University cannot and must not tell its students that
it will only permit opinions that espouse a predetermined viewpoint.
The First Amendment does not exist to protect only non-controversial
speech. Indeed, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members
of a community may find controversial. For this reason, Central
Michigan University must vigorously guard against policies under which
a cry of ‘offense’ is sufficient to silence students.

Accordingly, FIRE requests that Central Michigan University:

1) Affirm that the First Amendment rights of Don Pasco, Jeff
Cech, Adam Trumble, and Nick Dear are fully protected by your
University, and that no policy or procedure will be used to circumvent
those protected rights;

2) Guarantee that the four students will receive no further retaliation
for the expression of their constitutionally protected opinions on this
or any other topic, past or present; and

3) Publicly declare that Central Michigan University recognizes
postings on doors as a constitutionally protected form of expression.

Universities should encourage robust, impassioned discussion of
their students’ deeply held beliefs, and should not shy away from
controversy. A university in which students have any fear of reprisal
for expressing controversial opinions is one that is rendered impotent
to address society’s most crucial issues.

FIRE hopes we will be able to resolve this dispute discreetly
and amicably. However, FIRE will stay with this case with persistence
and resolve. We are categorically committed to using all of our media
and legal resources to support the involved students and to see this
process to a just and moral conclusion. Please spare Central Michigan
University the embarrassment of fighting against the Bill of Rights 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

Schools: Central Michigan University Cases: Central Michigan University: Abridgement of Freedom to Display Patriotic Symbols