WILMINGTON, N.C.—In October, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNC-W) ordered the opening and examination of the private letters of a UNC-W professor’s email account. It is a remarkable story of abusive authority and hypocrisy. Four days after the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, a student sent the professor, 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 responded with criticism of her opinions, and when others to whom he forwarded her email responded with forceful criticism, the student demanded that the University grant her access to the professor’s private emails so that she could sue him. Although UNC-W’s own legal counsel twice acknowledged that the student’s claims are entirely without legal merit, the administration has nevertheless capitulated to her irrational demands and examined the professor’s private correspondence.
"Administrators at UNC-W apparently have concluded that the senseless demands of one individual—demands that have no legal merit and that the school itself dismissed at first—are enough to trump the constitutional rights of another. It is a sad case of careerism and indifference to principle," said Alan Charles Kors, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
On September 15, Mike Adams, a professor at UNC-W’s Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, received an email from a UNC-W undergraduate student.* In the email, addressed generally to the University’s students and faculty, she quoted the "World Socialist Website," and argued, "The American ruling elite, in its insolence and cynicism, acts as if it can carry out its violent enterprises around the world without creating the political conditions for violent acts of retribution." She concluded with an invitation to forward the email in the interest of "open, unbiased, democratic discussion."
Professor Adams sent the student a brief reply and forwarded her message to others, several of whom responded directly to her. Stung by sharp criticism, the student, in communications to the UNC-W general counsel, accused Professor Adams of intimidation, defamation, and false representation. On the basis of these specious accusations, she demanded that the University allow her to see the professor’s emails. Administrators at first stated that she had no right to view those emails, but she persisted. On her third attempt, administrators capitulated, abandoning their recognition of an obligation to defend a faculty member’s right to privacy, and deciding instead to search the professor’s private email records on her behalf.
"[The UNC-W student] claimed she wanted an ‘open discussion,’ but when emails came to her that were dismissive of her ideas she quickly abandoned the freedom of speech she claimed to foster," said Kors. "It’s as if she believes that speech is only free to the extent to which it agrees with her ideas."
When UNC-W administrators first questioned Adams, he contacted FIRE, which wrote to UNC-W Chancellor James Leutze pointing out that the discussion and criticism that the student’s email initiated were "a demonstration of the First Amendment at work," but that "now she seeks to prosecute those who disagree with her."
FIRE added that the administration "has legitimized her claims by taking action against Professor Adams. In doing this, UNC-W has ominously demonstrated that when the most basic rights of students and faculty are threatened, UNC-W is not above abandoning them. The chill that this will send into every communication on your campus is palpable."
"We hope that UNC-W’s administrators will avoid doing battle with the Bill of Rights, to which they are morally and legally bound," said FIRE’s letter to UNC-W. "They must change course before irreversible harm is done to privacy rights and freedom of speech on campus. UNC-W’s duty is to protect the constitutional rights of its faculty and its students at all costs, not to appease those who would silence all dissent."
FIRE has yet to receive a response from Chancellor Leutze. However, FIRE’s campaign of sunlight has included appearances by Adams on television and in newsprint. FIRE will soon begin a long-term initiative to educate UNC-W’s regents, students, parents, and donors.
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 rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience on our campuses. An archive of FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at UNC-W and elsewhere is available at www.thefire.org.
Thor L. Halvorssen, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
James Leutze, Chancellor of UNC-W: 910-962-3030; email@example.com
John C. Cavanaugh, Provost of UNC-W: 910-962-3389; firstname.lastname@example.org
Harold M. White, University Counsel, UNC-W: 910-962-3030; email@example.com
Mike Adams, Professor at UNC-W: 910-962-3425; firstname.lastname@example.org
* 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.