September 19, 2002
President Michael F. Adams
University of Georgia
The Administration Building
Athens, Georgia 30602-1661
Dear President Adams,
As you can see from our Directors and Board of Advisors, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites leaders in the fields of civil rights and civil liberties, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, freedom of religion, academic freedom, due process, and, in this case, freedom of speech, expression, and association on America’s college campuses. Our web page, www.thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and activities.
FIRE is concerned about the apparent attempt by administrators at the University of Georgia to threaten the free expression and independence of its fraternities. We are pleased that this present threat appears to be resolved, and we are sure that we may count on UGA’s ongoing respect for the rights of its students.
This is our understanding of the facts. On July 22, 2002, a Student Affairs counselor and advisor to fraternities in the Office of the Dean of Students e-mailed UGA’s fraternity presidents. In his e-mail he said, "Please make sure that no stars and bars flags/confederate flags (unless you are flying the pre-56) can be seen from any house windows." When a student challenged the University’s power, as a public institution bound by the First Amendment, to order this, the Student Affairs counselor replied that there was no formal policy banning the flags, but that "it would violate the diversity plan put forward by IFC [the Inter-Fraternity Council]… He also said that "IFC would bring any group up on violation [sic]" if they did fly the flag—though the IFC is an independent fraternity body not under the control of UGA. When the student informed the counselor that he was enlisting the help of the ACLU and FIRE, the counselor fortunately re-characterized the exchange. The counselor said that UGA had no policy that would prevent any group from flying any flag; that the IFC only had a "gentleman’s agreement" with fraternity presidents not to fly the flag; and that he had not actually meant that students "would" be brought up on charges by the IFC.
If the statement by the Student Affairs counselor had not been challenged, the fraternities would have reasonably believed they were being told directly by the University to comply with an official order to suppress constitutionally protected expression. It should not have taken the threat of external intervention for UGA to affirm the expressive rights of its students. Furthermore, while students have the right to join fraternities and to agree to abide by fraternity rules, UGA should not unreasonably impose its will on their right to associate freely. We hope that the University understands it has moral, contractual, and legal obligations to its students and their rights, and that the University must not threaten them, either explicitly or implicitly, for exercising those rights.
FIRE would like your assurances that the expressive rights of its students are secure, and that the independence of the IFC and of UGA fraternities is honored. We look forward to hearing from you.
Director of Legal and Public Advocacy
Richard H. Mullendore, Vice President for Student Affairs
Claudia Shamp, Associate Dean of Student Affairs
Stephen M. Schewmaker, Executive Director, Office of Legal Affairs
Karen A. Holbrook, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost