September 27, 2010
A recent e-mail blast from the media-relations office at Grambling State University has recently been criticized for violating students' First Amendment rights.
According to The News-Star, on July 13, students received an e-mail instructing them not to forward election-related e-mails through their university accounts as doing so could imply institutional endorsement. The e-mail specifically said, "DO NOT FORWARD campaign solicitations using university e-mail as this implies your support for the candidate and may be viewed as utilizing university resources for solicitation purposes, a violation of state policy." The message also advised students to delete such e-mails upon receipt.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana argued that the e-mail was an "'unlawful restriction' that violates students' constitutional rights to express their political beliefs and engage in political debate". The groups asked Grambling State University President Frank Pogue to lift the policy. FoxNews.com added that FIRE said it would not back down until the matter was resolved.
Upon investigation, The Chronicle of Higher Education discovered that the e-mail blast was actually intended for staff members. According to Vanessa Littleton, a spokeswoman for the university, the message was accidentally distributed to students. From there, the issue escalated when a student brought the e-mail to the attention of FIRE.
According to The News-Star, Littleton said that the university "does not prohibit students or employees from political expression" and provided a copy of the school's e-mail policy. The Chronicle of Higher Education noted that FIRE and ACLU ended up objecting to the overall policy far more than the original e-mail blast. The groups argued that the policy's use of undefined and vague terms granted administrators "unbridled discretion to censor or punish protected speech".
Will Creeley, FIRE's director of legal and public advocacy, said in an interview that policies limiting students' speech are "unfortunately more or less of a regular occurrence". Indeed, FoxNews.com noted that in the 2008 election cycle, the University of Oklahoma banned "the forwarding of political humor and commentary" via e-mail. The University of Illinois also prohibited political buttons, t-shirts, bumper stickers and campaign literature.
Robert C. Wiley, independent mayoral candidate in Grambling who filed a complaint against the university with ACLU and FIRE, said it was necessary to reverse the effects of the policy immediately. "We have to get students involved in this electoral process. If we don't get students involved, then higher education will always be treated like a stepchild."
Littleton told FoxNews.com that "the university is communicating on this matter with legal counsel and the governing board. To ensure the Grambling State University community is fully aware of the university's policy, email use policies are being redistributed".
Compiled by CityTownInfo.com Staff
"Complaints filed over GSU e-mails," thenewsstar.com, September 23, 2010, Stephen Largen
"Free-Speech Advocates Challenge E-Mail Policies at Grambling State," chronicle.com, September 22, 2010, Peter Schmidt
"Grambling State University Bans Political E-Mails, Cites State Law," foxnews.com, September 22, 2010, Stephen Clark