UNCW denies chilling free speech after inspecting professor

Controversy continues to swirl around what the University of North Carolina at Wilmington did to a professor for chiding a student’s mass-distributed e-mail as “bad speech.” As well as around what UNCW didn’t do.

As discussed in the Oct. 26 Clarion Call, the controversy began a week after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. UNCW senior Rosa Fuller sent an e-mail addressed to the students and faculty of UNCW about those attacks, citing the World Socialist Web Site in blaming the attacks on the United States itself, which she called the world’s “main source of oppression,” and in hinting that President Bush would benefit from the results of the attacks. “If you support open, unbiased, democratic discussion of all the facts, please forward this e-mail to friends and acquaintances both on and off campus,” Fuller concluded.

UNCW Criminal Justice Prof. Mike Adams, one of the recipients of Fuller’s e-mail, responded to Fuller’s invitation, saying Fuller’s e-mail was “undeserving of serious consideration” and “an intentionally divisive diatribe” but noting that “The Constitution protects your speech just as it has protected bigoted, unintelligent, and immature speech for many years.”

“I sincerely hope that your bad speech serves as a catalyst for better speech by others,” Adams wrote. He forwarded his response to all the original recipients.
Fuller received many replies to her missive, some very much not to her liking. Fuller was particularly outraged at Adams’ response and appeared to blame it for her other replies. Fuller told the Pope Center that Adams “berated me with a series of abusive epithets, which falsely represented me as dishonest, intentionally divisive, bigoted, unintelligent, and immature.”

Furthermore, Fuller said, “I have reason to believe Dr. Adams sent copies of his false representation of me to others, inside and outside the University community.” Because of that suspicion, Fuller asked the university to be able to inspect Adams’ e-mails, hold him accountable for violating the UNCW Computing Resource Use’s policy against “abusive or defamatory communications,” and to prevent Adams from using the campus computing system for e-mail.

When the Pope Center first reported on this controversy, UNCW had rebuffed Fuller’s efforts as frivolous, and Adams had praised the administration in general for its patience. UNCW officials had, nevertheless, brought students in for questioning, searched Adams’ e-mail log, and read some of two communications before determining that they were private.

Since then the controversy has escalated. The university yielded to a fourth request from Fuller, giving her an account of the names, the e-mail addresses, the date and times of Adams’ e-mail communications of Sept. 17 and 18. UNCW also reviewed the on-campus inboxes of Adams’ correspondents, both student and faculty. Meanwhile, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education , a nonprofit education foundation that works to protect individual rights on college campuses, got interested in the case. Adams was featured on the Fox News show “Hannity and Colmes,” in which he talked about how the controversy “exerts a chilling effect on free speech” and was attacked as an “unsavory character” by Fuller’s father, Dennis Fuller.

Then word came to Adams that Harold M. White Jr., UNCW Counsel, had spoke critically of Adams’ handling of the case and his privacy complaint in a university classroom. “You understand I never really know what to trust about what students say,” said Adams, “but it really made me nervous to be told the administration was being critical of me behind the podium.”

Furthermore, Adams learned that Dennis Fuller, who once taught at UNCW, had complained about him before the board of trustees and to university administrators, calling him a right-wing ideologue using the classroom to espouse his political views. Adams has made public-records requests of Fuller’s complaints against him but has received nothing.
“It’s disturbing; the very act of examining e-mails is very outrageous,” Adams said. “It is distressing that they will not respond to my requests but they will grant [the Fullers’] requests.”

Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy at FIRE, wrote to UNCW Chancellor James Leutze, saying that although “the outrageousness of this invasion of privacy and complicity in punishing core political speech should be self-evident,” the university has instead “legitimized Fuller’s frivolous and dangerous legal claims.” Lukianoff called on UNCW to affirm that Adams did no wrong, apologize to Adams, and reject Fuller’s claims.

UNC Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs John Cavanaugh responded, saying that “Dr. Adams was never investigated, threatened, or sanctioned for saying anything by this administration.” Although declaring that “the administration on three occasions refused to grant [Fuller’s] request,” Cavanaugh writes that “we were forced to respond to a narrowly framed request for certain records [but] we did not turn over any records to the requestor.”

“I and others in this administration have been quite vocal in our support of faculty members’ rights to speak open and freely in support of whatever position they choose,” Cavanaugh wrote.

“There are these comments — ‘Yeah, I support your rights’ — and then there are actions — actually reading your e-mail,” Adams said.

He said junior faculty had come to him, worried about the e-mail intrusion. “They said, ‘Oh, my God, they can do that?” he said, adding that he knows of some professors who obtained private e-mail addresses.
“You want to talk about a chilling effect; it’s there,” Adams said.

“The administration at UNCW has begun an effort to conceal what occurred and to spin its way out of the public-relations nightmare,” said FIRE director Thor Halvorssen, calling Cavanaugh’s denials “demonstrably false.” Halvorssen noted that UNCW’s process of going through Adams’ e-mail and his correspondents’ inboxes certainly constituted an investigation as well as a speech-chilling invasion of privacy.

Halvorssen was also scornful of Cavanaugh’s statement that the university was “forced” to comply with Fuller’s fourth request. “[UNCW] was never ordered by a court to release any information,” he said.
“It appears that they (FIRE) are trying to raise controversy out of what is indisputably an unpopular e-mail from this student for publicity for their organization,” said Harold M. White Jr., UNCW Counsel. White said Halvorssen was mischaracterizing the issue.

White explained that UNCW officials had rebuffed Fuller’s public-records requests seeking access to Adams’ e-mail communications on three grounds, including that they were private correspondence, which was a controversial position to take since many public agencies and corporations consider users of company e-mail as having no expectation of privacy.

So Fuller requested access to anything the university itself considered public record, and that was the request UNCW granted. The university considered the transmission logs public records, but only those of public employees (faculty), not students. White said there was some speculation on Fuller’s motive for that request, since the undisputed public records would not support her complaints. He said Adams thought she just wanted a look at her transmission log.

Fuller told the Pope Center that “if it is found that Dr. Adams sent his false representation of me to others, and if these others acted on his false representation, and sent me abusive e-mail communications, I shall also accuse him of libel.”

White said calling the log check an “investigation” gave the wrong connotation. Instead, he defined it as an “ascertainment” to determine whether the content qualified as public records.

“The biggest rub of all this is [FIRE] wants to attribute motive,” White said. “Political considerations have had absolutely nothing to do with this. FIRE is making it out to be some sort of liberal academic plot to get Adams, and that’s the biggest lie. It’s just ridiculous.”

White acknowledged FIRE’s contention that Adams objected to going through his e-mail, but he said the disagreement was over who should determine which e-mail messages were public record, Adams or UNCW. This interpretation Adams flatly denied.

“I objected period — on the basis of principle,” said Adams. “I do not understand what I may have said to them to give them the impression that I was departing from that general moral principle. It’s something that we can all understand: It’s just morally wrong.”

“I’m pretty certain that the state owns the bathroom stalls on campus, but decent people don’t go peeking over them,” Adams said.