When University of Georgia (UGA) student Jacob Lovell wrote a frustrated e-mail to the school's Parking Services about the lack of places on campus to park his scooter, he had no idea that his e-mail would lead to formal charges from the university for disruption and "conduct that causes or provokes a disturbance." Only after FIRE got involved did UGA back down from the charges, concluding there was insufficient evidence to justify them. Now, FIRE has chronicled Lovell's travails in our newest video, "Scootergate!"
The video is a humorous treatment of Lovell's case, since it has to be counted among one of the silliest reasons that FIRE has ever seen for a student to face disciplinary charges from his or her university. Of course, it's only humorous now because FIRE was able to successfully help Lovell. Here's the entirety of his e-mail to Parking Services; I will warn you now that it has two "bad words" in it:
Why isn't there any scooter parking near Aderhold, according to your parking map? There's like a billion places to park on north campus and over by the Georgia center, but nothing anywhere close to Aderhold. What the hell? Did you guys just throw darts at a map to decide where to put scooter corrals? Can I expect you guys to get off your asses and put in a corral near there some point before I fucking graduate and/or the sun runs out of hydrogen?
Thanks for nothing, ever,
UGA's Parking Services replied to Lovell's e-mail with the following:
Your e-mail was sent to student judiciary.
To which Lovell responded:
So that's a no?
That is the entirety of the exchange. For this, Lovell was charged a couple of weeks later with the following:
CR.3.1. Disruption or obstruction of teaching, research, administration or other University activities, including its public service functions on or off campus, or other authorized non-University activities taking place on University property.
CR.3.2. Engaging in conduct that causes or provokes a disturbance that disrupts the academic pursuits, or infringes on the rights, privacy, or privileges of another person.
Specifically, it is alleged that Mr. Lovell engaged in disorderly conduct and disrupted parking services when he sent an email to them that was threatening.
It may have been "alleged" that Mr. Lovell did those things, but anyone with even a basic amount of life experience and a modicum of reasoning ability knows that whoever "alleged" such things was simply annoyed about getting a snippy e-mail from Jacob Lovell and decided to use his or her power to punish Lovell for annoying him or her. There is simply no way that his e-mail "disrupted" or "disturbed" the functioning of Parking Services—which had, after all, actually solicited "negative & positive" e-mail feedback on their website. In short, it was a corrupt use of the disciplinary process, and whoever prompted the charges is, to that extent, corrupt.
Why is this a problem we should care about? First and most obviously, UGA administrators are public officials. If they are willing to engage in petty corruption like the obvious misuse of official disciplinary procedures in order to punish those they dislike, who knows what other corruption they might be willing to countenance? Even this level of corruption is bad enough; after all, punishment on these charges could easily have derailed or shortened Lovell's academic career, changing the course of his life simply because some administrator didn't want to hear any backtalk about his or her incompetence in the placement of scooter parking corrals.
Second, as Greg points out in his Huffington Post article today, when average citizens or students are willing to accept the punishment of speech they don't like, that willingness becomes an irresistible invitation to the powerful to begin censoring speech that might undermine their power. As Greg writes:
One reason why free speech makes so much sense is because any system that allows for censorship must place an actual, flawed human being in charge of deciding what can and cannot be said. Once the power to censor has been granted, it follows like night follows day that those in charge will be more likely to use this power to punish people with points of view that they simply dislike than those with points of view they favor.
Greg is referring in this case to the calls for censorship of "inflammatory" speech that have come from some quarters in the wake of last week's horrendous mass shooting in Arizona. But, as he points out, the principle applies to people at all levels of power. It could not be more clear that the principle Greg discusses was at work in Jacob Lovell's case, where flawed human beings made a corrupt call for punishment of speech they didn't like. This may be petty tyranny compared to that of laws that would censor speech nationwide, but tyranny it remains.
Finally, it might be tempting to dismiss Lovell's frustrated e-mail as low-value speech that doesn't really deserve protection. After all, he did swear in the e-mail, the e-mail was not respectful to the authorities, and the fact that Lovell joked about the sun running out of hydrogen shows that he was not making a serious, immaculately civil, and sensitive criticism of Parking Services. Why not punish him, then, to encourage others to disagree in more productive ways?
For one thing, the Supreme Court disagrees with this analysis. As the Court wrote in Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949), "...a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging." This describes Lovell's e-mail to a T. It certainly stirred Parking Services to anger.
And what's more, it succeeded! Lovell sent his e-mail in late August. He was charged with "disruption" in early September. And check out this headline from The Red and Black, UGA's main student newspaper, dated October 11, 2010:
Care to hazard a guess as to what might have prompted this? Parking Services doesn't say, nor would we expect it to. But I can't help noting that UGA added five more lots, more than 150 new spaces, and that one of the lots is right across the street from Aderhold Hall—right where Lovell asked for it.
The great thing about freedom of speech is that it works—and it proves itself over and over again. Why universities will not learn this lesson once and for all is beyond us, but until they do, FIRE will be here to teach them.