Grambling State University and the University of Louisiana System are consulting legal counsel about GSU’s e-mail policy after the ACLU of Louisiana and a nonpartisan educational foundation sent letters to the university saying the policy is unconstitutional and suppresses free speech.
The educational foundation, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, was the first to send a letter to GSU President Frank Pogue after the university’s media relations office sent an e-mail to students on July 13 telling them not to forward campaign solicitations through university e-mail accounts because doing so could imply university support and violate state law.
"Individuals who receive political campaign solicitations via university e-mail are advised to delete these e-mails upon receipt," the e-mail stated.
"DO NOT FORWARD campaign solicitations using university e-mail as this implies your support for the candidate and may be viewed as utilizing university resources for solicitation purposes, a violation of state policy."
In its Sept. 1 letter to Pogue, FIRE said the e-mail policy represents a broad misreading of the state’s prohibition of certain political activities by members of a state civil service commission or classified employees.
"This e-mail misrepresents state law," FIRE’s letter states.
"Much speech and debate on significant matters of public interest will simply disappear from the campus, particularly now, in the final months leading to this year’s elections – the very time such expression is most urgent."
The ACLU got involved Wednesday, sending its own open letter to Pogue and releasing a joint statement with FIRE that describes GSU’s response thus far to the concerns raised by FIRE as insufficient.
The ACLU’s letter to Pogue calls the e-mail policy "an unlawful restriction" that violates students’ constitutional rights to express their political beliefs and engage in political debate.
The letter asks GSU to lift the policy immediately.
Asked to respond to the concerns raised by FIRE and the ACLU, GSU spokeswoman Vanessa Littleton said the university does not prohibit students or employees from political expression and provided a copy of the university’s e-mail policy.
Littleton went on to say that the e-mail policy is being discussed with the system’s legal counsel.
Littleton did not respond to an e-mail sent late Wednesday afternoon seeking comment from Pogue.
UL spokeswoman Jackie Tisdell said to her knowledge, the system office was not aware of the July e-mail sent to GSU students prohibiting the forwarding of campaign solicitations.
The joint statement says the response that has been provided thus far by GSU – a copy of the university’s policy – to FIRE’s initial letter is insufficient and raises further questions about the university’s e-mail policy.
GSU is overstepping its authority and the university’s policy "grants GSU administrators unbridled discretion to censor or punish protected speech," the statement says.
A copy of the statement is available on The News-Star’s website, www.thenewsstar.com.
Will Creeley, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy, said in an interview Wednesday that universities attempting to limit students’ speech are "unfortunately more or less of a regular occurrence."
ACLU executive director Marjorie Essman said government restrictions on speech must be narrowly targeted to a specific government purpose.
GSU’s e-mail policy does not meet that standard, she said.
GSU Student Government Association President LaMark Hughes did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.
Rico Rivers, a 1995 GSU graduate and a former editor of the university’s student newspaper, said he is dismayed by the university’s e-mail policy.
"My initial thought is, what would the pioneers and veterans of the Civil/Voting Rights Movement think?" Rivers said in an e-mail.
Rivers said the policy curbs political expression in a crucial election year that includes the Grambling’s mayoral race.
"It puts the university in a tough position to get students involved in future elections," he said.
Additional FactsGSU e-mail policy
1. Grambling State University e-mail system shall not to be used for the creation or distribution of any disruptive or offensive messages, including offensive comments about race, gender, hair color, disabilities, age, sexual orientation, pornography, religious beliefs and practice, political beliefs or national origin. Employees who receive any offensive e-mails with this content from any Grambling State University employee should report the matter to their supervisor immediately
Source: Grambling State University