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William & Mary Apologizes for Censoring Dormitory Staff in Wake of Tragedy

In recent news, the College of William & Mary (W&M) has rescinded disciplinary actions against two dormitory housekeepers for talking to the press about the tragic suicides of two students in a campus fraternity house. The two workers had been quoted in the local paper as calling one of the students a “real joyful dude” and “a good kid.” A week after the workers’ supervisory personnel terminated one of the workers and put the other on three years’ employment probation for “fail[ing] to listen to [their] supervisor’s director that barred [them] from speaking to the press about the death,” the college president, Timothy J. Sullivan, revoked the sanctions and publicly e-mailed a statement of apology in support of the workers’ right to speak. The Daily Press reported that President Sullivan’s e-mail stated:

The disciplinary actions related to talking to the press have been rescinded with our sincere apology. The college does not discipline employees for speaking to the public or the press on matters of public interest or concern…. Understandably, our supervisory personnel sought to protect the privacy of students and their families. But we were mistaken in directing the employees not to speak to the press and in taking disciplinary action.

Though one of the workers expressed dissatisfaction with the whole incident and his suspicion that there was an ulterior motive for his firing, a union field organizer for the Virginia Public Service Workers Union stated, “I’m quite happy that the college has made things right…. As far as anybody who remains at the college, that’s a powerful statement that the president made.”

Indeed, President Sullivan’s support of freedom of speech for workers in this case, perhaps influenced by the emotional and tragic circumstances and the positive nature of the workers’ statements, stands in stark contrast to statements that he made regarding students’ rights to free speech last year, when students had been prevented from holding an “affirmative action bake sale“—until FIRE intervened. FIRE stated in our February 2004 press release

On January 27, [2004,] the day of the successful protest, W&M issued a statement by President Sullivan denouncing the affirmative action bake sale as ‘inexcusably hurtful’ and ‘abusive’…. Sullivan denied that W&M had wrongfully censored the November [2003] protest, which, he claimed, ‘did not meet the administrative requirements we routinely impose on such activities.’ This came as surprising news to the Sons of Liberty, [a libertarian student organization on campus that] for nearly three months had asked W&M officials for an explanation of the censorship, and who had heard no mention of any violation of ‘administrative requirements.’

…When FIRE’s intervention prompted many concerned citizens to write critically to W&M’s President Sullivan, he responded dismissively, telling one thoughtful defender of free speech, “Some fool has sent me an e-mail and signed your name to it.” FIRE wrote an open letter to W&M’s Board of Visitors about both the university’s unconstitutional censorship and President Sullivan’s contempt for those who wrote to him about the fundamental rights of students.

While being free to engage in affirmative action bake sales certainly does not strike the same emotional chord as being free to comment positively on students who recently committed suicide, the right for students to engage in an affirmative action bake sale, a form of protest (the message of which I personally disagree with) about a matter of public concern, was also deserving of the president’s support. Fortunately, the president seems to have come around in support of freedom of expression in this particular situation, though the workers should never have been disciplined in the first place.

Let’s hope that he and all W&M administrators and other personnel are, by now, fully aware of their obligations to protect the basic constitutional rights of all members of the campus community in a principled and consistent matter so that no unlawful censorship of students, dormitory staff, or anyone else on campus takes place ever again. It is during the most emotional and controversial times—regardless of particular issues at hand—that all members of a campus community especially need to feel free to voice themselves without fear of unlawful repression.

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