University of Idaho ‘Argonaut’ Covers FIRE Free Speech Case; UI Won’t Reveal Name of Secret Accuser

June 3, 2010

Tuesday’s Argonaut, the student newspaper of the University of Idaho (UI), covers FIRE’s case involving a student who was charged with discrimination and harassment because of political comments he made during two events.

Peter wrote about the events relating to these charges last week:

On or about March 30, during César Chávez Day at UI, there was a musical performance in the food court in UI’s student union building. The music was loud enough that, in Rowson’s opinion, it was disrupting his class nearby. Between songs, Rowson went to the microphone and made a political statement about "how illegal immigration destroyed my home state of California." His impromptu protest lasted roughly thirty seconds, he says, and then the performance continued.

In an unrelated incident on April 22, Rowson stood outside as a student-led "Take Back the Night" rally proceeded past his dormitory. As the parade passed him, Rowson shouted comments to the group along the lines of "how liberalism is destroying America."

The Argonaut reports:

"I contacted FIRE because the charges included discrimination and harassment," Rowson said. "I contacted them out of worries because I thought I was within my First Amendment rights."

Rowson was right, in that the content of his speech was protected. The Argonaut also mentions FIRE’s successful involvement in the case so far:

UI amended the charges after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said in a letter to [President] Duane Nellis that the content of Rowson’s speech came nowhere near the definition of "harassment" or "discrimination."

However, Rowson’s story is not over, because not all the charges were dropped:

The amended complaint now includes only three counts, two for interrupting both events and one for intimidating a participant in the march. The amendments were made with respect to Rowson’s protection under the First Amendment for free speech.

That’s right, some unnamed person claimed that Rowson engaged in "intimidation" against him at the rally, "specifically by intentionally walking into a participant in an aggressive manner." More than a month after the incident, however, Rowson still has no idea who his accuser is. That’s patently unfair, especially when the charge is as severe as "intimidation." We have no way of knowing whether or not this person simply disliked what Rowson was saying and is now hiding behind an anonymous complaint.

The Argonaut registers my concerns:

Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Defense Program, said a main concern of FIRE is the pending charge that Rowson intentionally walked into a participant of the "Take Back the Night" march.

Kissel said in order to defend himself, Rowson has the right to know his accuser and his accuser has not been identified. Rowson denies he intentionally walked into anybody.

"I don’t remember such an event," Rowson said.

Rowson has been offered a settlement from UI in order to avoid a hearing. It is disappointing that UI wants him to sign a statement saying that he is guilty of intimidating a fellow student, when Rowson has no recollection of any kind of confrontation with anyone that night. Hopefully a better settlement can be reached.

Besides, according to the Student Code of Conduct, the alleged intimidation has to be "undertaken knowingly" to be punishable. Is UI really prepared to argue that Rowson intentionally walked into some participant in order to intimidate himto make that person somehow fear for his safety or be intimidated from participating in the march? This sounds farfetched to me, especially since this person appears to be some random participant whom Rowson doesn’t even know. (Or does he? If anyone is missing important facts, it is precisely because UI refuses to reveal them.)

In any case, Rowson is pleased that the aspects of his case most directly concerning free speech have been resolved. And he is defending his First Amendment right to express himself in the marketplace of ideas:

"One shouldn’t be afraid to speak out for fear of controversy," he said. "I don’t take back what I said, just how I said it. Everybody makes mistakes."

If Rowson is ever told the identity of his secret accuser, we gladly would be the first to praise the University of Idaho for acknowledging this basic principle of justice. Until then, stay tuned.

Schools:  University of Idaho

Cases:  University of Idaho: Student Charged With Discrimination and Harassment for ‘Offensive’ Speech