University Yanks Professor's Email Access After He Criticizes School Chancellor, Compares His Statements To School Shootings

from the apparently,-criticism-isn't-free-speech dept

American universities frequently have an uneasy relationship with the First Amendment. For institutions that are supposedly broadening the horizons of their students, they sure seem to spend a lot of time ensuring they are "protected" from anything unpleasant or offensive. Many still deploy so-called "Free Speech Zones" -- small areas on campus where students can exercise their First Amendment rights -- provided, of course, that they have cleared their "speech" with administration in advance.

It doesn't stop with the students, though. These rules that curtail free speech are just as frequently applied to the staff, should they happen to offer up "unpopular" speech or, worse, directly criticize the school's administration. We saw an example of this late last year when Chicago State University twisted trademark law in an attempt to shut down a blog run by a faculty member that was highly critical of its administrative decisions.

Now, we're seeing the same thing at Colorado State University-Pueblo. Unlike Chicago State, this university hasn't deployed intellectual property protections as a way to curtail speech. Instead, it has used the university's Electronic Communications Policy to shut up a professor who has been openly critical of the school's restructuring plans. (h/t to Nate Hoffelder)

On Friday, many at Colorado State University-Pueblo nervously awaited word from administrators on exactly how many jobs would be eliminated there. Officials had warned that the number could be as high as 50 -- a prospect that angered many students and professors at the university who dispute administrators' assertions that the institution faces a deficit requiring layoffs.

Timothy McGettigan, a professor of sociology, sent out an email to students and faculty members in which he urged them to fight the cuts. His subject line was "Children of Ludlow," referring to a 1914 massacre of striking coal miners in southern Colorado. McGettigan compared the way the central system administration was treating Pueblo to the bloody way coal mine owners treated their workers 100 years ago. He went on to say that, just like a century ago, those without power were being mistreated.

He said that the announcement that afternoon would reveal who was on Chancellor Michael Martin's "hit list," and said that the chancellor was "putting a gun to the head" of those who would lose their jobs, "destroying the livelihood of the people that he is terminating" and "incinerating the best opportunity that southern Coloradans have to earn their own little piece of the American dream."
The email sent by McGettigan (embedded below) does contain some violent imagery but none of it is anything more than metaphorical. Not a single word of it is directed at the school's chancellor or anyone else involved in the layoff process. If anything, his wording suggests that any (metaphorical) violence would be directed towards the faculty and students by the chancellor. That nuance apparently went unnoticed by CSU-Pueblo's president, Lesley Di Mare, who decided to yank McGettigan's email access -- leaving him unable to fulfill his teaching duties as his Blackboard access is tied directly to the email account.

A letter written by CSU-Pueblo's deputy general counsel details the supposed policy violation committed by McGettigan.
Dear Professor McGettigan:

The electronic communications policy of CSU-Pueblo states that the following are prohibited uses of such communications:

4. Use of electronic communications to intimidate, harass other individuals, or to interfere with the activity of others to conduct university business.

Your email message today with the subject line "Children of Ludlow" is in violation of this policy.
The letter goes on to note that the violation is punishable by immediate deactivation of the email account, leaving the possibility open that the account will be reactivated "upon further review."

CSU-Pueblo president Di Mare tried to defend her decision by dragging in a parade of horrors completely unrelated to the matter at hand.
Considering the lessons we’ve all learned from Columbine, Virginia Tech, and more recently Arapahoe High School, I can only say that the security of our students, faculty, and staff are our top priority,” Di Mare said. “CSU-Pueblo is facing some budget challenges right now, which has sparked impassioned criticism and debate across our campus community. That’s entirely appropriate, and everyone on campus – no matter how you feel about the challenges at hand – should be able to engage in that activity in an environment that is free of intimidation, harassment, and threats."
When a university president is forced to compare a letter containing zero violent threats to actual school shootings, the battle is already lost. But Di Mare hasn't ceded ground, apparently still convinced McGettigan's call to action in the face of layoffs is at least as dangerous as a gun-wielding shooter roaming the halls of CSU-Pueblo.

This misuse of the school's communication policy to stifle criticism provoked a strong response from other academic and free speech-oriented entities.
Jonathan Poritz, vice president of the AAUP at Pueblo and associate professor of mathematics, said via email that McGettigan had every right to make the historical comparison he did...

"How administration could think that McGettigan's Ludlow metaphor rises to the level of 'safety, security, of another matter of an emergency nature' [the standard for immediate removal of an email account] is beyond me. In fact, he is concerned with the welfare of the students at our institution, with the excellence and indeed viability of our programs in the face or such an aggressive central system chancellor."
A number of Colorado professors also joined together to issue a statement decrying President Di Mare's treatment of McGettigan.
The American Association of University Professors Colorado Conference emphatically rejects Colorado State University Pueblo President Lesley Di Mare’s reckless and damaging conflation of legitimate faculty criticism of proposed mission-compromising cuts to faculty and staff at CSU-Pueblo with the brutal and mindless slaughter of innocents at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Arapahoe High School. While any university president is obligated to insure the physical safety of their university community, associating peaceful and legitimate dissent with the violent intentions of deranged gunmen is the very height of absurdity and reveals an appalling lack of professional judgment in a university president.   The email to which President Di Mare was allegedly responding, written by sociology professor Tim McGettigan, is a passionately phrased appeal to faculty and community solidarity in defense of CSU-Pueblo’s faculty, staff, and academic mission. It deserved an intelligent and informative response, not an illogical damnation and a suspension of his basic faculty rights.
Free speech advocacy group FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) also sent a letter condemning Di Mare's actions. In it, Peter Bonilla of FIRE points out how Di Mare's decision to immediately yank McGettigan's email access clearly ignores the limitations set up in CSU-Pueblo's own communication policy.
CSU-Pueblo is apparently justifying McGettigan’s discipline by invoking the “Disciplinary Action” section of the Electronic Communications Policy. The section reads, in relevant part:

If a condition exists where Computer Center personnel feel there is a need for immediate action, that action (account deactivation, etc.) will be taken, then the matter referred to the authorities listed above. These cases will be limited to instances involving safety, security, or another matter of an emergency nature. [Emphasis added.]
Seeing as Di Mare thought McGettigan's email was so horrifying that McGettigan's email access needed to be immediately shut down and so horrifying that she instantly drew comparisons to school shootings, it's a surprise she didn't follow the next step in the policy and notify the authorities. The absence of this action strongly suggests the only thing "horrifying" about McGettigan's critical email was the criticism itself.

At this point, McGettigan has only been granted partial access to the school's email system, an access that prevents him from sending email to large groups of university members. Obviously, the university still would rather McGettigan keep his thoughts to himself, or at least disseminate them less widely. But the most ridiculous aspect of its half-assed concession is this:
McGettigan only learned of this partial restoration indirectly, since the school notified him of the partial email reactivation via emailthe very email account he had quit checking since they told him it was deactivated!
All this goes to show that certain institutes of higher learning are still only interested in protecting speech they approve of. Rather than answer criticism, they simply seek to shut the critic up. This teaches its students that unpopular speech isn't welcome and that speaking up against perceived injustice within its walls will only result in disciplinary action. It will definitely make students (and faculty) question whether they want to continue being associated with such a thin-skinned entity or surrounded by those who believe only bland, uncontroversial speech should be "protected."




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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2014 @ 10:04am

    This is what happens when profits come before education.

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