In a remarkable turn of events the University of California, Santa Barbara, awarded Christopher Brown a Master’s degree in Materials Science on May 16. After being denied his degree for more than one year, and after numerous letters and emails from FIRE to UCSB, the university appears to have recognized that it is on the losing side of an open-and-shut First Amendment case. Venice, California attorney Paul Hoffman, a member of the FIRE Legal Network, represents Brown.
Last year, Brown submitted the thesis to the library with a preface that he called “Disacknowledgments.” The librarians at UCSB (themselves subject to criticism in the Disacknowledgments) informed the school that Brown’s preface contained unflattering, vulgar, and offensive remarks directed at the school. Upon the administration’s discovering this, Brown was told he would not be granted a degree unless he removed the “offending” language. Brown altered his remarks, removing what he considered to be the offending passages. At this point the school’s Dean informed Brown that in order to be granted his degree he would have to remove the section altogether. Brown refused, invoking his First Amendment rights at a public university. Because his Disacknowledgments prevented him from earning his degree (for a thesis already approved in terms of its substance), Brown was placed on academic probation and was threatened with expulsion several weeks ago.
FIRE pointed out to the school that a public university may not withhold a degree because a student criticizes faculty, administrators, and public officials in a separate (and invariably personal) preface to his thesis. The First Amendment absolutely protects this kind of criticism. After several letters from FIRE and from counsel, UCSB partially reversed itself by granting the degree, but only after the university substituted for Brown’s submission an earlier version of the thesis before the Disacknowledgements section was added by the author. In effect, the University ripped out and burned Brown’s criticism of the public University.
The University’s about-face is utterly inconsistent with its earlier refusal to accept the thesis and grant the degree. This u-turn, however, may not be the end of the case. FIRE remains committed to preventing the patently unconstitutional censorship of Brown’s protected speech by university officials. Watch this space for possible developments in the upcoming weeks.
Revealingly, the degree was conferred one day after a prime-time network news program, alerted to the case by a news article on FIRE, informed UCSB that it would be doing a story on the school’s refusal to grant the degree.