Last November, FIRE criticized Adams State University (ASU) in Colorado for its curious and sudden designation of “persona non grata” status to a former faculty member, Danny Ledonne, who taught at ASU from 2011 to 2015. He was not re-hired by ASU after Spring 2015, and in October, Ledonne launched the blog WatchingAdams.org, from which he criticized ASU’s wage and labor policies. ASU banned Ledonne from its campus just two days after the blog’s first entry, purporting to act pursuant to a policy that it had instituted only the day before, and apparently only to target Ledonne. In fact, the policy was so new that ASU hadn’t bothered to remove the name of the school whose policy they copied-and-pasted:
On Wednesday, Ledonne and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado filed a lawsuit against ASU, alleging that ASU’s “process” was somehow more farcical than had been publicly described. For one, the brand new policy was only a proposed policy, which ASU wisely—for once—opted not to accept as drafted “because several faculty and staff cited legal concerns with the proposed new policy.” Rather, ASU was obligated to follow an existing policy when designating a non-student as “persona non grata.” That policy required ASU to provide a “reasonable attempt to notify the individual of the basis for the order and an opportunity to be heard on the matter” before banning him from the campus. Even if the policy did not require a hearing before such an order were issued against Ledonne, a Colorado Supreme Court holding does. ASU, Ledonne alleges, provided no hearing before barring him from campus, then mangled the appeal process.
That brings us to ASU’s response to the lawsuit. According to Inside Higher Ed, ASU had this to say in response to the lawsuit’s filing:
Adams State said in a statement that the complaint is “based on a wholly false premise that we have been eager to completely refute, but have lacked the legal ability to do, until now.” Officials said that they look forward to “making the case that the university’s actions were based solely on evidence and the belief that Mr. Ledonne’s longstanding pattern of inappropriate actions and threatening statements required us to act in an abundance of caution to protect our students, faculty and staff. We will aggressively contest any accusation that our safety-based decisions were in any way related to constitutionally protected freedom of expression.”
This makes little sense. One of the core problems with ASU’s treatment of Ledonne is its silence. ASU was required by its own policies to give Ledonne an opportunity to respond, but it never told Ledonne what, precisely, merited his exile.
Nor has ASU’s purported need to remain silent kept it, well, silent. It has not stopped ASU’s president from granting interviews to assail Ledonne as having engaged in “personal attacks and terrorism against me.” It didn’t deter ASU’s board of trustees from issuing its own statement to the campus. It didn’t prevent ASU from issuing a press release. It has not stopped ASU’s police chief from sending campus-wide emails about Ledonne in which he acknowledged that Ledonne hadn’t broken any law but wrote that it was necessary to banish him to reassure a sense of safety and comfort, and something about Columbine:
My decision and recommendation to disallow this or any person access to our campus is based on the needs and safety of the ASU community which clearly outweighs the special interests of the singular. In this post-Columbine, hypersensitive world of mass shootings and violence on college campus’ nationwide, it is my duty to balance the free speech and individual rights against the public safety of the many. As your Chief of Police it is my duty to assure the sense of safety, security and comfort to all who attend and work here at Adams State University. Although, Mr. Ledonne’s behavior has not yet breached the realm of violation of our laws, my recommendation to ban him from campus is sound, rational and errs on the side of public safety.
Nor did ASU’s “need” to remain silent prevent ASU’s president from sending her own campus-wide email and meeting with other faculty members:
I will be appearing before the Faculty Senate and [Associated Student & Faculty Senate] to discuss this matter. The administration is being as open and transparent as we can under the law. It is unfortunate that misinformation has led some to believe this is about "free speech" versus safety.
ASU’s need to remain silent hasn’t prevented it from speaking in detail about the matter, except for the one time when it most mattered: when due process demanded that ASU give Ledonne an opportunity to respond and contest ASU’s allegations. This would have been the opportunity to correct any “misinformation”—not after Ledonne was forced to file a lawsuit.
As for ASU’s assertion that its designation of Ledonne as persona non grata is unrelated to his blog—this, too, is dubious. Many of the incidents disclosed by ASU to defend their actions occurred long before Ledonne was banned, principally Ledonne’s creation of a Columbine video game 10 years earlier. Yet ASU curiously waited to act against this purported “threat” to their campus until after Ledonne began writing about them publicly.
FIRE remains skeptical of ASU’s unsubstantiated claims and process-lite treatment of Ledonne, who is now seeking a preliminary injunction against ASU. We will continue following this case as it progresses.