UNC-Wilmington Update: Hiding from the Truth

WILMINGTON, NC— On December 19, 2001, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) issued a report on the investigation and invasion of privacy of a professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington (UNC-W). In response to growing criticism, the administration of UNC-W has begun an effort to conceal what occurred and to spin its way out of the public relations nightmare that has ensued from its outrageous conduct.

Four days after the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, [an undergraduate student]* sent UNC-W Professor Mike Adams, and others, an email that blamed the United States for the attacks. She asked recipients to forward it to those interested in further “open” discussion. When the professor (and others) responded with criticism of her opinions, the student demanded that the University grant her access to the professor’s private emails so that she could sue him for libel. As FIRE reported, UNC-W ordered the opening and examination of the private email letters of Professor Adams.
UNC-W Provost John C. Cavanaugh, replying to critics, asserts that Professor Adams
was never investigated, that he was never punished for his exercise of his First
Amendment rights, that Professor Adams’s expression was not stifled by the University,
that they did not turn over any records to the student accuser, that the university
was “forced” to comply with the student accusers’ requests for documents, that
Professor Adams praises UNC-W’s actions, and that FIRE never “checked” with them
or consulted any primary sources. All of these claims are undeniably and demonstrably
false. FIRE is in possession of all of the documents referred to below. Here are
the facts:
Releasing student and faculty email records: UNC-W claims that it did not turn over any records to the student accuser. In fact, on October 25, University Counsel Harold M. White, Jr. turned over a printout of the date and times of all of the emails sent by Professor Adams from September 17-September 18, 2001. The printout, the bottom line of which reads, “Printed for Hal White whiteh@uncwil.edu 10/22/01,” details the identity and email addresses of everyone with whom Adams communicated, including nine on-campus and fourteen off-campus emails. A cover letter of October 25, 2001 from University Counsel White to [the student], Adams’s would-be persecutor, stated: “A list of these emails and the addresses to which they were sent are attached.”

Investigation: The same letter of October 25, 2001 from University Counsel White to [the student] documents the extensive investigation not only of Professor Adams’s email account, but also of the accounts of those with whom he corresponded. This official university investigation included “a review of the transmittal logs” by the Information Technology Systems Division (ITSD), a review of the on-campus “inboxes on our central computing facility (VAX),” and an inquiry into the content of students and faculty who corresponded with Adams. Finally, they “asked Dr. Adams [and others] to examine the logs on their personal PCs.” Provost Cavanaugh himself, the Chancellor, the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, and the Vice Chancellor of ITSD were all copied on this letter. At approximately 11:00 AM on October 25, Professor Adams watched as, over his objections, university personnel, including Systems Programming Manager Michael Sheehan (who, according to Adams, objected to having to check Adams’s email) and University Counsel Harold White, gathered his emails saved on the system and opened his email account. White reviewed the content of the only two emails they were able to retrieve. He had to review them almost in their entirety in order to decide that these emails were, after all, private and not part of the public record. A week before this invasion White went to Adams’s office with a systems programmer to verify that Adams had not deleted any messages. White looked at both the outbox and the trash folder of Adams’s office computer. This long process was precisely “an investigation.”

Punishment: Invasion of privacy is a punishment. The University Counsel himself recognized this when he wrote in his October 25 letter that the investigation “caused predictable consternation, outrage and a feeling of violation and invasion of privacy on the part of those whose mail was to be inspected.” At the very least, the University clearly understood the moral impropriety of what it was doing. Now that they are exposed, they will not concede the obvious point that violating someone’s right to privacy is wrong, illegal, and a form of punishment. Indeed, as University Counsel wrote to [the student], “both our student and our faculty member felt they were being coerced and ‘forced,'” adding, “we did examine their inboxes over their objections pursuant to your request.”

Chilling effect: The investigation into the constitutionally protected views and private correspondence of faculty and students stifled Adams and anyone else who uses email to communicate freely on campus. This action has made Professor Adams and, doubtless, many others at UNC-W fearful of expressing themselves too sincerely, lest they be investigated and punished, even if that expression is in a private email discussion. The failure to defend the primacy of free speech chills campus speech for everyone.

“We were forced to respond”: UNC-W boasts that, on three occasions, it refused to violate the privacy of Professor Adams. However, they blithely concede that they capitulated on the student’s fourth attempt. UNC-W, however, cannot claim that it was “forced” to do anything. It was never ordered by a court to release any information. UNC-W was not “forced” to betray the privacy rights of its professors and students. Rather, it simply decided to do so, and in University Counsel’s letter of October 25 to [the student], he even expressed regret that one private email could not be retrieved: “Unfortunately, Dr. King’s inbox did not have the email from Dr. Adams.” If there were some higher authority that commanded the University to take these actions, let them release these “instructions.” The existence of very strong constitutional arguments and wholly clear moral arguments against letting a would-be censor press her demands contradict any claim by UNC-W that it was “forced” to comply. Indeed, if such an instruction had been issued, UNC-W should have resisted. It could have won a victory for speech and privacy, instead of capitulating to abusive authority.


Professor Adams does not defend UNC-W: In his response to critics, Provost
Cavanaugh claims that Professor Adams defended UNC-W’s actions on national television.
In fact, when Professor Adams appeared on the news show “Hannity and Colmes,”
the appearance to which Cavanaugh refers, he praised precisely the initial
actions of UNC-W when it denied the accuser’s request. On that very show, however,
Professor Adams called the University’s subsequent action an “intrusion,” and
commented on the “serious chilling effect on free speech.” Today, Professor
Adams contacted FIRE to reiterate his belief that UNC-W has wronged him, chilled
his speech, and violated his privacy. Indeed, he further stated that UNC-W continues
to retaliate against him for allowing FIRE to take his case public.

UNC-W had ample opportunity to respond and to dispute FIRE’s position. On November 8, 2001, FIRE sent letters to the UNC-W administration and trustees, including Provost Cavanaugh, which covered all of the above claims in great detail and invited the University to comment.

On December 3, 2001, forty more letters discussing the troubling aspects of this
case were sent to the various parties. Again FIRE invited a response, and pleaded
with the University not to humiliate itself further by its assaults on liberty,
due process, and decency.


Furthermore, FIRE’s conclusions are based primarily on the internal documents of the case, including UNC-W’s own letters and statements. What UNC-W is denying is the very set of signed official documents and correspondence that carried out and boasted about this injustice.


FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience on our campuses. Copies of FIRE’s letters to UNC-W are available at www.thefire.org.


Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE: 215-717-3473; fire@thefire.org


James Leutze, Chancellor of UNC-W: 910-962-3030; leutzej@uncwil.edu


Harold M. White, University Counsel, UNC-W: 910-962-3030; whiteh@uncwil.edu


John C. Cavanaugh, Provost of UNC-W: 910-962-3389; cavanaugh@uncwil.edu


Mike Adams, Professor at UNC-W: 910-962-3425; adamsm@pop.uncwil.edu


* FIRE has granted the request of the undergraduate’s father that her name
be deleted in the interests of sparing her from further public controversy.

Schools: University of North Carolina – Wilmington Cases: University of North Carolina at Wilmington: Invasion of Professor’s Privacy and Suppression of Speech