Peace College to Critics: ‘Desist’ From Exercising Free Speech

By on March 2, 2012

In higher education, a significant transformation has been underway at Peace College in North Carolina, a women’s college that will begin admitting men to its full-time undergraduate programs starting this fall. The proverbial "winning hearts and minds" is an important task for a college leader guiding her institution through a major transformation, and criticism from within and without is an inevitable part of the process. How colleges respond to such pressures can greatly affect their public perception. 

Pity, then, the way Peace College (which will be renamed William Peace University as part of its transformation) has responded to criticisms leveled by the Preserve Peace College Campaign. In response to a letter circulated by the coalition, Peace College (through an outside law firm) has not-so-kindly asked all signatories to the letter to "desist from further distribution" and "send letters of retraction" to atone for the letter’s supposedly "damag[ing]" content. 

FIRE has been given a copy of both the "Save Peace College" letter that was circulated and one of the response letters sent by attorney Catharine Biggs Arrowood, of the law firm Parker Poe, on the college’s behalf. In the copies FIRE received, the names of the signatories to the letter have been redacted, as have the identities of those receiving the letter from Arrowood. 

The letter that was circulated in October 2011 was not friendly to Peace College, calling out "not just [] the decision to become coeducational or changing the school’s name," but also "modifications that fundamentally destroy and recast the mission of the school." Peace College President Debra Townsley and the college’s executive board come in for heavy criticism and are accused of pushing through dramatic reforms to serve their personal agendas. The group’s website also calls for their resignations. 

FIRE does not vouch for the assertions in the group’s letter or take any position on its content, though it is worth pointing out that the assertions in the letter can be checked rather easily, and statements of opinion are clearly labeled as such. And, to be clear, the right to circulate a list of grievances as the Preserve Peace College Campaign has done is about as basic a principle of freedom of expression as there is. 

Yet here is what Arrowood wrote to roughly 40 signatories of the letter: 

The university has recently become aware of a letter sent over your signature which contains various statements about the University and its President, statements which are not only false but individually and collectively damage the reputation of the University and its President. The letter reflects an intent to deliberately and improperly interfere with the University’s relationships with its various constituencies. … 

[...]

[I]n order to mitigate damage arising from the continued publication of the letter, you should desist from further distribution of the letter and send letters of retraction to any persons to whom the letter was published, whether they received the letter directly by mail or otherwise. In addition, we ask that you furnish us with the list utilized to distribute this letter so that we may communicate directly with its recipients to correct your misstatements.

You have to give them some credit: It takes a lot of nerve to send that kind of letter in response to a letter expressing disagreement with the way Peace College is being run. Actually, you don’t have to give them credit. Such disrespect by the college for the basic exercise of the group’s free speech rights, in fact, smacks precisely of one of the charges leveled against the college by the group: that it is unaccountable to the public and that "[c]oncerned alumni of Peace College are treated as adversaries when they pose legitimate questions to the new guard." 

I have some news for Peace College: Criticisms that might "damage" the administration’s reputation are, with quite narrow exceptions, protected by the First Amendment, and I see nothing in the group’s letter coming close to meriting an exception to the rule. Is the current administration so thin-skinned that it can’t even abide this form of criticism in its midst?

It’s also worth asking, since Peace College seems so determined to stamp out dissent, how officials responded to this August 2011 editorial in the News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), which laments:  

This past year, the culture and quality of Peace have been precipitously dismantled. Strategic plans appear to have been predetermined, dominated by a few new voices and hastily enacted. Selected facts and figures have been crunched by those seeking to make Peace a case study of their acumen.

Further, the editorial asks the Peace College administration: 

Why abruptly abandon what has been labored over and built with considerable consensus and success in recent decades? Why seek to mimic indistinguishable coeducational competitors in the marketplace? Why radically tear apart instead of build upon strengths, especially at a time of consequential reaccreditation? [...]

Why force into early retirement and terminate iconic and aspiring professors — over half of the fulltime faculty — who are remembered long after trustees and presidents come and go? Why fire and discourage professionals who enrich the campus experience?

Why break ties with the Presbyterian Church, dismiss the chaplaincy as irrelevant and eliminate the shared experiences of chapel services, a tradition since 1872? Why strip these students of values and traditions that bond them back to the institution where their character, giving and involvement matter most? 

And, why do all this in a shroud of secrecy and undue urgency? What has happened to transparency and inclusiveness and to uplifting the fundamental values of the institution in times of change?

I ask how Peace College would have responded to this editorial because every one of these issues raised by the editorial is raised in the Save Peace College letter the college was so determined to suppress. This News & Observer editorial, however, was jointly authored by S. David Frazier, Garrett Briggs, and Laura C. Bingham—three past presidents of Peace College. 

Do you suppose Peace College sent its former leaders the same letter it sent the members of the Preserve Peace College Campaign?

Schools: Peace College