By John Ruch at Creative Loafing Atlanta
The Valdosta State University professor who recently called for ending all state Confederate memorials says the school – under pressure by officials – retaliated by closing his email account and freezing funds for his program on local lynching history.
VSU officials say there was no retaliation against adjunct sociology professor Mark Patrick George, who has since voluntary left for another job. But if he had stayed, he would have been “investigated” for sending his activist letters via his university email – a supposed use of “public resources for political purposes.”
That concern was raised in complaints by John Hall Jr., a VSU alumnus and Sons of Confederate Veterans member. Messages obtained by George through a public records request show University System of Georgia officials ordering VSU to quash George’s effort. That happened after he presented Hall with evidence that the alum’s ancestor owned slaves, and implied he might have black relatives as a result.
“I don’t like what he was doing, but [the basic issue is], don’t use my college as a stepping stone or soapbox for your efforts,” Hall told CL. He said VSU President William McKinney told him George “crossed” a line by using state resources.
Azhar Majeed of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based organization that defends free speech on college campuses, says those arguments are bogus and could affect the free speech rights of all VSU professors and students.
“The mere fact he was using his school-provided email address by itself would not remove his freedom of First Amendment expression,” Majeed says. “You can’t help but imagine there’s a chilling effect from this type of action.”
FIRE successfully fought another VSU free speech battle in 2007, when it expelled a student for criticizing a campus garage project. FIRE is now examining George’s case.
Two months ago, George teamed with Rev. Floyd Rose of the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference chapter on the effort to end all state Confederate memorials. They emailed a letter on June 23 to the governor and all state legislators, saying such memorials are factually inaccurate and inherently racist.
No one responded, so George emailed a follow-up letter in July. The next day, he found his email account deleted without warning.
VSU also won’t release the meager $250 fund for the Mary Turner Project, the lynching history program George runs and mentioned in the letter.
VSU Provost Hudson Rogers tells CL that was just a standard, automatic purge after George’s employment contract expired in May. With no VSU contract, George technically had no academic freedom that VSU could violate, Rogers claimed. And the legal status of the Turner Project funds are unclear with George gone, Rogers said.
“His First Amendment rights were never abridged,” Rogers said.
But the internal emails obtained by George, and which were sent over a three-week period following Hall’s July 10 complaint, tell a more political tale. McKinney at first backed George’s free speech rights. But then Thomas Daniel, a top USG external affairs official, told VSU to quiet George’s “inflammatory” spat with Hall because it could be politically embarrassing.
“I hope there’s a response in the works that can head off a ‘hot’ response from a legislator or even the Governor’s Office…I am not trying to muzzle a professor here, just keep the University’s thatched roof from catching fire too,” wrote VSU official Philip Allen to McKinney, transmitting Daniel’s concerns.
McKinney, acting on advice from the USG legal department, immediately ordered Rogers to carry out George’s email purge. But there was confusion about whether George had obtained the account as a professor or as a VSU alumnus, which would require different protocols. So McKinney said to shut the email either as the post-employment purge, or because of “IT use policy” violations – whichever worked.
McKinney also called the Turner Project a “troubling grey area” that could look like political lobbying. “Frankly, the USG is now questioning it,” he wrote in the emails obtained by George.
George admits to being in an employment gray area – he was slated to teach VSU summer classes while hunting for another job. But, he says, he was within his rights using school email to reflect his “legitimacy” on the issue.
There was other political inquiry, too, though it took place a few days after VSU had already purged George’s account. Emails show state Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, also complained to USG about the letter.
FIRE’s Majeed says many schools today are confused about actual laws on political activity and “overreact” with illegal crackdowns on political speech.
“Cry me a river,” Hall said of any fallout on George. “It’s not like the Confederate Army went down there and hung him.”
George says the dispute isn’t affecting his advocacy. “I see it as kind of a measure of effectiveness. Somebody’s cage has been rattled,” he said. George said on Monday morning that he and the SCLC president were scheduled to meet this afternoon with VSU’s provost, president, and the university’s attorney.
Schools: Valdosta State University