CLEMSON, South Carolina, May 26, 2010—Clemson University has withdrawn “disorderly conduct,” “harassment,” and two other charges against a student who e-mailed an administrator using “language and tone” that another administrator found “unacceptable.” After undergraduate William Kirwan was charged with a variety of offenses in violation of his First Amendment rights, he turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“Public university administrators cannot punish students simply because they disapprove of their ‘language and tone,’” said FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley. “We commend Clemson’s leadership for putting an end to this violation as soon as FIRE brought it to their attention.”
On May 13, Clemson administrator Laura McMaster tried to persuade Kirwan’s student organization, Central Spirit, to participate in Clemson’s Fall Organizations Fair. Kirwan, the group’s president, replied by e-mail, with a copy to administrator Marty Kern, “I’m not going to let you bully the organization into doing the things you want us to do or perceive as important.” He stated that he trusted six previous Central Spirit presidents “over yours any day of the week and twice on Sunday.” He also joked that she must have been “smoking crack” before trying to persuade him.
Kern responded that the e-mail’s “language and tone [are] unacceptable in any setting” and requested a meeting with Kirwan. Kirwan declined the invitation to meet, at which point Kern bizarrely stated that she would hold the meeting without him.
On May 19, Kirwan received a disciplinary letter charging him with “Disorderly Conduct,” “Harassment,” “Failure to Comply with Official Request,” and “Computer Misuse” because he allegedly had “sent an email that had the effect of creating a hostile work environment” and declined the optional meeting. Neither the particular e-mail nor the particular staff member was identified.
FIRE wrote Clemson President James F. Barker on May 24 explaining that Kirwan’s e-mails were protected speech. In response, Clemson dropped all charges on May 25. Clemson’s letter to FIRE yesterday acknowledges that “[T]he First Amendment protects speech even when it is rude or offensive” and pledges that “Clemson University does not prohibit speech in violation of the First Amendment.”
“Kirwan’s speech was so clearly protected that the charges never should have been filed in the first place,” said Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “An administrator found vague policies to apply vindictively against a student because of his attitude, but the First Amendment prohibits such punishment at a public university like Clemson. Clemson quickly corrected its error for the right reasons and is unlikely to make the same mistake again.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.
Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org