ATLANTA, Sept. 22, 2010—The University of Georgia (UGA) has withdrawn charges of “disorderly conduct” and “disruption” filed against a student after he sent a mocking e-mail to UGA Parking Services to complain about the lack of parking spaces for scooters on campus. Although Parking Services specifically asks students for both “negative & positive” comments on its performance, student Jacob Lovell spent nearly a month under the threat of punishment after submitting his e-mail. UGA backed down after Lovell came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“Jacob Lovell just wanted to park his scooter on campus, and when he found it a frustrating experience he sent a joking e-mail to the department that had asked for his feedback. But when it received his e-mail, he was threatened with punishment!” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “Only on a college campus could a clearly flippant response to requests for complaints about parking on campus be turned into a judicial investigation for disorderly conduct.”
UGA Parking Services requests feedback from the public and encourages people to submit both “negative & positive” comments. On August 17, 2010, Lovell e-mailed Parking Services with his complaint about its service. His flippant and joking e-mail mused, “Did you guys just throw darts at a map to decide where to put scooter corrals?” and otherwise made fun of the department for what he perceived to be its poor job of providing parking for scooters.
Four hours later, Parking Services replied, “Your e-mail was sent to student judiciary.” On September 3, 2010, Associate Dean of Students Kimberly Ellis sent Lovell a letter charging him with two violations of UGA’s University Conduct Regulations, stating, “Specifically, it is alleged that Mr. Lovell engaged in disorderly conduct and disrupted parking services when he sent an email to them that was threatening.”
“Over the years FIRE has seen multiple cases where campuses claimed that they felt ‘threatened’ by speech that really frightened no one,” Lukianoff said. “Campuses that rely on cynical claims of feeling ‘threatened’ to chill merely critical speech should remember the parable of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf.'”
The letter required Lovell to make a disciplinary appointment by September 13. Ellis informed Lovell that failure to do so would result in his record being “flagged,” rendering him unable to add, drop, or register for classes. Lovell complied with this requirement on September 13.
Meanwhile, on September 10, FIRE wrote UGA President Michael F. Adams, explaining that Lovell’s grievance was protected by the First Amendment. FIRE also repeated to President Adams that UGA maintains unconstitutional speech codes in addition to the regulations used against Lovell’s protected speech, and that administrators could be held personally liable by a court for the violation of students’ constitutional rights, as a federal judge in Georgia ruled recently.
On September 14, Ellis informed Lovell that she “did not find sufficient evidence to move forward” with the charges and that the matter was now “closed.”
“If a student can’t complain about scooter parking, how can students be expected to feel comfortable taking on anything genuinely controversial?” said FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel. “Yet, on campus after campus we have seen that schools have forgotten that truly fostering a ‘marketplace of ideas’ necessarily means sometimes hearing things you do not want to hear.”
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 at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
TAKE ACTION: Tell President Adams that UGA must reform its unconstitutional policies before another student’s rights are violated.