Lawless University President Tramples the First Amendment

By on April 18, 2000

ST. CLOUD, MN—The president of St. Cloud State University (SCSU) was prosecutor, judge, and jury in an unconstitutional assault upon the free speech rights of an undergraduate student. Christopher Monson was quoted in the student newspaper in favor of allowing credit card companies to solicit on campus. His words, unacceptable to the PC language police, landed him in sensitivity training.

On December 9, 1999, the SCSU campus newspaper, the University Chronicle quoted Monson, who argued that a public university had obligations to public access and legal equality: it would be illegal not to allow such persons on campus, just as “not allowing blacks on campus” would be illegal. Whether or not he was correct about commercial access, the analogy was a plausible, vivid, and constitutionally protected illustration of his point that a public university was barred from discrimination. Ironically, Monson has been an activist on behalf of increasing minority presence on the SCSU campus.

Four days later, SCSU President Suzanne Williams sent an e-mail message “To the University Community.” Williams wrote that the student had “made the unfortunate analogy that not allowing credit solicitors on campus could cause legal problems just as ‘not allowing blacks on campus’ could.” She then added:

    The University finds the statement—intentional or not—to be demeaning and totally inappropriate. We are looking into the quote to determine the circumstances, and to take whatever action is necessary to stem racial insults such as this.

FIRE’s President, University of Pennsylvania Professor Alan Charles Kors, recently lectured at St. Cloud State University on issues of individual rights and talked extensively with concerned faculty and students. Many faculty members and students at SCSU have expressed concern about the chilling effect on campus freedom. Kors was astonished that this case of unconstitutional censorship has received no public attention: “It is bad enough to have a university president unable to follow the simple logic of a benign analogy. It is a scandal, however, that the president of a public university, an institution bound by the First Amendment to the state and federal constitutions, neither recognizes nor respects her clearest obligations to the rule of law, including the essential rights of freedom of speech and of the press. What has no place on such a campus is a president who takes upon herself the unconstitutional and lawless power ‘to take whatever action is necessary to stem’ free speech.” Kors also stated that it is a further scandal that the president of a public university would find this student guilty of a crime—for uttering protected speech, no less—without so much as a hearing or a shred of due process.

The next day, President Williams announced, again by e-mail, that the offending student would be undergoing “sensitivity training” at the campus Multicultural Center. Kors considered this message a warning to any future “offenders.” “Moreover,” he said, “she compounded her betrayal of the Constitution with a betrayal of the last atom of human privacy and dignity. Unfortunately this seizure of illegal and unconstitutional power over the free speech and free minds of students is an epidemic at our public universities.”

FIRE’s president pointed out that the combination of the suppression of free expression and the use of thought reform should bring to mind what Justice Robert Jackson wrote for the majority of the US Supreme Court in West Virginia Board of Education versus Barnette, a judgment that remains the law of the land:

    If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what will be orthodox, in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith [in it].

Kors said, “President Suzanne Williams is indeed a ‘petty official’ of the state, in all of the meanings of ‘petty.’ She has betrayed her obligations to her position and to the Constitution by which her university is bound. St. Cloud State University is now a lawless institution.” FIRE will pursue this matter with all of the means at its disposal.

President Williams has recently been embroiled in another scandal involving SCSU’s Applied Psychology Department (APSY). Williams has come under criticism from a number of concerned graduate students and faculty members, and from the Minnesota Association of Scholars, for splitting the APSY at St. Cloud into separate departments because a handful of students charged a group of faculty with “racism.” Williams herself later proclaimed the besieged faculty to be innocent. Ignoring the facts she investigated, she proceeded with dismembering the department. An independent counsel appointed by the Chancellor of the Minnesota State College and University system found President Williams herself to have been guilty of “discrimination” on grounds of race and gender against the members of the APSY program whom she investigated, but that report was not accepted by the Chancellor, Morrie Anderson. Ironically, the same student who initiated charges of racism against distinguished members of the APSY faculty now has accused President Williams of racism (but she is not splitting her own office into separate departments). The concerned faculty have dubbed their school: “The Shadow University on the Mississippi” and established a website: http://members.aol.com/shadowuniversity/shadow.html.

“Williams has no grasp of essential constitutional principles, of due process, or of her obligations as the president of a public university,” said Kors.

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Contact:

Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE: 215-717-3473, Email: fire@thefire.org

Suzanne Williams, President, St. Cloud State University: 320-255-2122

William F. Meehan, MN Association of Scholars: 651-228-1212

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Schools: Saint Cloud State University