The George Washington University’s Informer Line Continues to Invite Secret Denunciations and Dossiers

May 14, 2002

WASHINGTON, DC—Students and faculty at the George Washington University (GW) continue to live under a nightmarish “Compliance Line” policy that invites secret allegations and investigations. The hotline, established in February 2002 and administered off campus by Pinkerton Security, allows charges of any nature to be made anonymously. The administration may then launch investigations and create secret dossiers, without even notifying the target or providing him or her with the means for immediate rebuttal of quite possibly malicious charges. When media attention was first brought to bear on this scandalous policy, GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg issued a public statement in which he called the policy “a little aggressive” and repudiated the actions of Vice President and Treasurer Louis Katz, who apparently instituted the policy unilaterally. Students and faculty only learned of this informer line once it had been created. Despite his statement, however, President Trachtenberg has yet to dismantle the Compliance Line, which—as of the time of this release—is still in operation.

“The George Washington University’s ‘informer line’ is a mockery of justice,” said Alan Charles Kors, president of FIRE. “President Trachtenberg needs to uphold the principles of due process at his institution. He must act immediately to end an experiment in secret denunciations and investigations that is unworthy of a free society.”

In a letter of February 8, 2002 to all faculty, Vice President Katz announced the creation of the Compliance Line as a means to “report unethical behavior at the University” and to inquire “whether or not certain behavior is ethical.” The announcement met with stern criticism. Twice, on March 8 and April 12, 2002, the Faculty Senate at GW voted unanimously to criticize the establishment of the Compliance Line and to call for its immediate suspension. On April 25, 2002, the campus newspaper, The GW Hatchet, strongly condemned the policy.

FIRE wrote to President Trachtenberg on April 25, 2002, calling on him to eliminate the policy immediately. “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,” wrote FIRE. “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.”

On April 29, 2002, in an interview with The Washington Times, President Trachtenberg, accepting “full responsibility” for the matter, suggested that the University was backing away from the Compliance Line policy. Claiming that Vice President Katz “got a little carried away” when he created the hotline, President Trachtenberg proposed some changes to the policy. His modifications, however, fell far short of the demands of his critics. Rather than eliminating the Compliance Line policy, President Trachtenberg merely proposed moving the operation of the hotline from Pinkerton Security’s facilities in North Carolina to an on-campus location, and changing the hotline’s hours of operation from twenty-four hours to regular school hours only.

“The changes proposed are merely cosmetic,” said Kors. “They completely ignore the central issue—that students and professors face secret inquisitions and denunciations at GW, with no opportunity to hear or refute allegations made against them.”

GW previously flirted with implementing a system of anonymous accusations in early 2001, when it considered a sexual harassment code that would have eliminated virtually all protections of due process. The code, similar to Columbia University’s outrageous Sexual Misconduct Policy, denied the accused such basic decencies as the right to know their accusers, to see the evidence against them, to have a hearing before punishment is imposed, to be judged by an impartial body, and to receive a copy of the verdict. In April 2001, GW’s Faculty Senate voted unanimously to reject the proposed code—handing a stinging defeat to those who would repeal the protections of fundamental fairness.

Kors said: “Unfortunately, GW needs to learn about fairness and decency all over again. To make his campus safe again for all of GW’s students and faculty, President Trachtenberg must dismantle the Compliance Line completely. GW cannot allow anonymous allegations, secret dossiers, and clandestine investigations and consider itself a haven for liberty.”

GW Vice President Louis Katz informed the GW Faculty Senate, on March 8, 2002, that GW was one of about twenty specific schools with such a system of secret accusations. FIRE is actively investigating each school listed in his disturbing claim.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process rights, freedom of expression, and rights of conscience on our campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at the George Washington University and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.

Contact:
Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE: 215-717-3473; fire@thefire.org
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, President, The George Washington University: 202-994-6500; gwupotu@gwu.edu
John Banzhaf, Professor of Law: 202-994-7229; jbanzhaf@ash.org
The George Washington Compliance Line: 888-508-5275