IUSB – Still Much at Stake

September 28, 2007

FIRE was pleased to announce last week that Indiana University–South Bend (IUSB) reversed its decision against student Robert Francis, originally found guilty of lewd conduct after interviewing actresses for a newspaper article about a campus production of “The Vagina Monologues.” FIRE wants to remind readers, however, that this reversal—signified solely by IUSB placing a note in Francis’ permanent record indicating that the decision was eventually overturned—does not sufficiently undo the lingering and ongoing injustices that characterize IUSB’s case against Francis.

Beginning in February 2007, and continuing until September 18, several IUSB administrators at various levels of power abused both university policies and administrative authority to charge, try, and convict Robert Francis in an arbitrary and unconstitutional manner. In writing to Francis to announce the reversal, IUSB Associate General Council Kipley Drew said:

I agree with the conclusion of [Director of Judicial Affairs Charlotte] Pfeiffer and [Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Services Karen] White and the Hearing Commission that the digression into your intimate personal experiences warranted some kind of response from the University. This response could have appropriately taken the shape of a proactive discussion regarding the effectiveness of your reporting technique or frank discussion with you as to the reaction that you might have anticipated (and quite possibly avoided) based on your choice of words and the receivers of those words.

However, I also agree with you that the University erred in trying to address these issues through a disciplinary process. The Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities and Conduct is designed to address behavior (i.e., conduct) and not speech. The charges filed against you should have been dismissed at the outset on that distinction. [Emphasis added]

Too bad that the Associate General Counsel wasn’t advising administrators all along. Now that IUSB clearly knows that its actions against Francis were wrong, are there any repercussions for the administrators who pushed these charges through with little concern for Francis’ constitutional rights? Will the university do anything to discourage or prevent administrators from treading down this road in the future? I’d like to see IUSB instill in administrators some sense of accountability and responsibility—to IUSB policies, to the U.S. Constitution, and to generally accepted standards of fairness.

In addition to these lingering concerns, there’s the fact that IUSB claims that it cannot remove evidence of this ordeal from Francis’ file. Is it really true that every frivolous complaint at IUSB, regardless of the outcome, materializes into a stain upon the accused student’s permanent record? Seems unlikely.

Finally, upon reversing the charges against Francis, IUSB summarily dismissed the complaint that he subsequently filed against “The Vagina Monologues” cast members. Francis’ complaint accused the cast members of conspiring to get the university to pull his review of the play from the newspaper, and therefore also implicates IUSB in engaging in prior restraint. This accusation seems to have at least some merit; in the March 7 issue of the Preface, the cast collaborated to write an article that opened with an introduction that read, “An article was written recently, by a student journalist for the Preface, reviewing this year’s performance of The Vagina Monologues. It was pulled from print, by the request of cast members. It made a complete mockery of The Vagina Monologues by turning an informational and empowering production into a flashy sex show.” So the cast members, it seems, disagreed with Francis’ interpretation of the play, and succeeded in suppressing it. Francis sees this as unconstitutional prior restraint. The university, however, has refused to further investigate the situation, perhaps because it is unwilling to determine if administrators—who have already been proven to throw constitutional concerns to the wind—played any role in getting the article suppressed. IUSB has a moral and a legal obligation to treat Francis’ complaint with at least the same seriousness—or even the same vehemence—with which it treated the complaints against Francis.

So while IUSB took an important step forward last week, its work has just begun. The university owes it to Francis and to all of its students to rectify a situation it has so seriously mishandled.