Will Threat of Legal Action Spur UNC to Restore Emeritus Professor’s Rights?

By on September 20, 2011

After months of discussion with little to show for it, Professor Emeritus Elliot Cramer plans to file an ethics complaint against University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) General Counsel Leslie C. Strohm, based in part on Strohm’s role in revoking his university email account and website. A lawsuit, Cramer says, is also imminent.

This latest development in Cramer’s case comes five months after UNC stripped him of his network credentials due to the agitations of an animal activist. The activist, unaffiliated in any way with UNC, repeatedly demanded that UNC punish Cramer merely because his UNC-provided website posted a link to an animal rights organization Cramer was involved with, where in turn readers could follow another link to learn about the pair’s private dispute. General Counsel Strohm told the individual, Joseph Villarosa, that she saw "no reference to [him] whatsoever" on Cramer’s UNC website and that his complaint was "not a University matter." Nonetheless Strohm ordered Cramer to remove the link from his website, and, even after complying with the request, UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp ordered the revocation of Cramer’s privileges, stating that Cramer had impermissibly involved UNC in his personal affairs.

The sanctions against Cramer went even further, in fact, than merely his university email and website; the loss of his network privileges also (perhaps unintentionally) meant that Cramer was unable to access electronic journals and other scholarly resources through UNC’s library system. As I wrote a few weeks ago, this hurt Cramer’s ability to continue with his research—and indeed, like many professors emereti, he has remained active and kept publishing since his 1994 retirement.

Those library privileges, Cramer reports, have finally been restored. Yet UNC’s unjust termination of his UNC email account and website persist. UNC’s newspaper The Daily Tar Heel reports that Cramer addressed a meeting of UNC’s Faculty Council last week (you can read his full prepared statements here, toward the end), hoping to bring a final resolution to this case. The DTH reports only that Thorp, who was present at the meeting, replied, "I think we’ve done a good job trying to satisfy this."

Whatever the likelihood of success of either the ethics complaint or lawsuit, UNC could have—and should have—prevented them from entering the conversation by acting quickly to remedy the basic injustice done here. Yet as we’ve made clear here many times now, rather than send the clear message to faculty that the university will protect them from outside interference, UNC has told the Joseph Villarosas of the world just how little it takes to win the censorship of their opponents.

There is still time for UNC to act here. Hopefully the threat of legal action and the bad PR that comes with it will finally bring the university around.

Schools: University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Cases: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Heckler’s Veto Results in Termination of Emeritus Professor’s Network Access