Today’s press release tells the curious tale of University of Georgia (UGA) student Jacob Lovell, who wanted to find parking for his scooter when he drove to class. Not finding enough parking close enough to class, he e-mailed UGA Parking Services with his complaint about its service. His flippant and joking e-mail mused, "Did you guys just throw darts at a map to decide where to put scooter corrals?" and otherwise made fun of the department for what he perceived to be its poor job of providing parking for scooters.
The response from Parking Services, in its entirety: "Your e-mail was sent to student judiciary." Lovell’s reply, in its entirety: "So that’s a no?"
The e-mail exchange was on August 17 and 18, 2010. Lovell wasn’t off the hook. On September 3, Associate Dean of Students Kimberly Ellis sent Lovell a letter charging him with two violations of UGA’s University Conduct Regulations, stating, "Specifically, it is alleged that Mr. Lovell engaged in disorderly conduct and disrupted parking services when he sent an email to them that was threatening." That is, the charges, for sending an e-mail, involved "disorderly conduct" and "disruption."
Read the e-mail for yourself, and you’ll see nothing beyond a mocking, flippant tone. I presume that’s much tamer than the kind of language a lot of people use when they address parking services offices, on or off campus, with complaints.
By the way, Parking Services requests feedback from the public and encourages people to submit both "negative & positive" comments. "We appreciate your comments," says the Parking Services feedback page, "and thank you for your valued time."
Or maybe Parking Services is being equally mocking and flippant.
The September 3 letter required Lovell to make a disciplinary appointment by September 13. Ellis informed Lovell that failure to do so would result in his record being "flagged," rendering him unable to add, drop, or register for classes. Lovell complied with this requirement on September 13.
Meanwhile, on September 10, FIRE wrote UGA President Michael F. Adams, explaining that Lovell’s grievance was protected by the First Amendment. FIRE also repeated to President Adams that UGA maintains unconstitutional speech codes in addition to the regulations used against Lovell’s protected speech, and that administrators could be held personally liable by a court for the violation of students’ constitutional rights—as a federal judge in Georgia ruled recently in a case involving the president of Valdosta State University.
FIRE’s letter, as usual, did the job. On September 14, Ellis informed Lovell that she "did not find sufficient evidence to move forward" with the charges and that the matter was now "closed."
Well, if a student can’t complain about scooter parking, how can students be expected to feel able to take on anything genuinely controversial without the threat of punishment? On campus after campus we have seen that school administrators have forgotten that truly fostering a "marketplace of ideas" necessarily means sometimes hearing things you do not want to hear.
Ellis never should have let the case linger for almost a month. As soon as it is clear that the speech in question is protected by the First Amendment, the investigation must end. Fortunately, however, after FIRE intervened, Ellis did the right thing and ended the investigation.
You can tell President Adams what you think. Let’s make sure President Adams understands that UGA must reform its unconstitutional policies before another student’s rights are violated.