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UNC-Chapel Hill Surrenders to 'Heckler's Veto,' Revokes Emeritus Professor's Network Access

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) has surrendered to the "heckler's veto" by revoking Professor Emeritus Elliot Cramer's network access following outside complaints about a link on his website to an organization that advocates for animal welfare. Despite telling the complaining individual that the dispute was "not a University matter" and that the university did not monitor the content of websites maintained by professors, UNC nevertheless demanded that Cramer remove the link from his website and later canceled his network access entirely.

Cramer, a psychology professor at UNC since 1966 and an emeritus faculty member since 1994, is an active scholar as well as President of the Board of Directors of the Piedmont Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). He is also affiliated with an awareness group called the Friends of Orange County Animal Shelter (FOCAS), over whose activities Cramer first got into his months-long dispute with Joseph Villarosa. While unaffiliated with UNC, Villarosa has been determined to have the university step in and shut Cramer's speech down.

According to records posted by Cramer, Villarosa contacted FOCAS in November 2010, raising questions about FOCAS' tax status in conjunction with the organization's efforts raising funds to support a lawsuit against an animal shelter in Robeson County. Villarosa also questioned the presence of a FOCAS email address with a '' domain, and whether this implied some kind of endorsement from UNC. On this latter point, Villarosa complained to the UNC administration multiple times demanding it take action against Cramer. Regarding the possibility of untoward activities by FOCAS, UNC General Counsel Leslie C. Strohm received authorization to search through Cramer's university email files. In January 2011, Strohm notified Cramer that she had done so, and asked him to clarify her understanding of FOCAS' activities. Cramer's response was evidently satisfactory, because after he corrected Strohm's account and replaced the FOCAS email account with an address unaffiliated with UNC, no action was taken against Cramer. Though Cramer would later pursue grievances both at the campus and UNC system level regarding the inspection of his email, the matter was otherwise resolved. 

Villarosa, however, was unmollified, and continued to draw UNC into his dispute with Cramernext by complaining that Cramer's website on the university network contained a link to the PAWS website, which in turn contained a link to a page about the dispute. On April 17, for example, Villarosa wrote to UNC to complain that "It is now been [sic] SIX MONTHS since I first reported this matter to UNC[.] During this time, there's been NO effective action taken by the University[.]" On April 20, 2011, Strohm, apparently tired of dealing with Villarosa's complaints, emailed Cramer ordering that he immediately remove "any links to material referencing Mr. Villarosa, either directly or indirectly." Later on the same day, however, Strohm informed Villarosa via email that she had visited Cramer's website and had seen "no reference to you [Villarosa] whatsoever." She further told Villarosa that his recourse lay "directly with Dr. Cramer," and that this issue was "not a University matter."

Cramer promptly removed the link, but it was too late. UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp notified Cramer on April 27 that he had ordered UNC's IT Security office to permanently disable Cramer's UNC network privileges, which also cut off Cramer's access to electronic library resources. Thorp accused Cramer of violating UNC's Personal Use Policy by "embroil[ing] the university in your personal issues and divert[ing] resources ... to a degree that is simply unacceptable."

FIRE wrote to Chancellor Thorp on June 1, pointing out that it was not Cramer who "embroiled" UNC in the dispute or caused the "diversion" of university resources, and that free expression on campus is in jeopardy when an outside party must merely prove sufficiently persistent and annoying in order to cause UNC to cut off network access for a member of the university community. Further, FIRE decimated UNC's argument that Cramer had violated UNC policy. In our letter we wrote that

There can be no doubt that the content of Cramer's speecha mere link on his webpage to an external webpageis protected by the First Amendment against retaliation from UNC. Moreover, it is entirely unreasonable to ask the impossible, namely, that a faculty member police every page of every website to which his own website links, so as to prevent "indirectly" referencing Villarosa.

Furthermore, Cramer's website and necessary communications about it with UNC due to Villarosa's complaints do not violate UNC's Personal Use Policy in any way. Strohm admitted in her April 20 email to Villarosa that UNC has "no responsibility for [Cramer's] actions," that "[t]his is not a University matter," that UNC "does not monitor the content of the ... webpages maintained by retired faculty," and that Strohm saw "no reference to [Villarosa] whatsoever" on Cramer's personal webpage. Even if the Personal Use Policy does apply to Cramer (who, as Strohm noted, is not a UNC employee), it is not permissible to punish Cramer due to Villarosa's persistent complaints. Although you stated that Cramer had "embroiled the university in [his] personal issues and diverted university resources," the evidence shows that Villarosa is the one who did so. Cramer has made numerous efforts to isolate UNC from the private dispute, and he even removed the link about which Villarosa complained. Further, Cramer has been within his rights to seek redress from UNC about UNC's investigation, censorship, and punishment of his protected expression stemming from Villarosa's complaints.

UNC General Counsel Strohm replied to FIRE on June 15, stating that UNC would not restore Cramer's network access and characterizing Cramer's reasonable, good-faith efforts to defend himself as part of the problem. Strohm also claimed that UNC had not acted due to the content of Cramer's expression, despite the fact that Strohm herself had ordered Cramer to remove content from his website.

As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff says in today's press release, "Apparently, UNC is willing to punish its own professors on the basis of their speech at the request of an outside party, if that person is simply persistent enough. Instead of protecting members of its community from outside threats to free speech, UNC has let this 'heckler's veto trump free expression on campus."

Indeed, it's hard to disagree with the impression that UNC's priorities have been exactly backwards here. While UNC's frustration with having to deal with Villarosa's barrage of complaints is understandable, Cramer had to deal with them, too, and he did what he could to keep UNC out of what was and always had been a private dispute. Instead of capitulating to pressure from Villarosa, a classic example of an unreasonable, determined heckler, UNC should have stood with Cramer instead of punishing and silencing him.

Not only is this no way to treat someone with decades of service to UNC, but this sets a terrible precedent for future cases. Emeritus professors at many universities, including UNC, often continue their research and writing, have labs and offices, and participate in faculty governance. There is no reason that such scholars should have any less in the way of free speech or academic freedom than those actively being paid by the university. Should a university be comfortable with punishing or silencing any or all of these individuals simply because their research, writing, or other activities might lead a person with no relationship with the university to repeatedly pester the institution? If so, I suspect there is a large number of emeritus professors across the nation who would be surprised and dismayed to hear it. Hopefully UNC will realize its mistake and restore Cramer's rights, and soon.

TAKE ACTION: Write to Chancellor Thorp and urge him to restore Professor Cramer's rights today!

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