"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. CSU-Pueblo has a wonderful and vibrant community, and the university has a bright future. I’m confident that we can solve our challenges with respectful debate and creative problem-solving so that we can focus on building that future together."
My God! Columbine? Virginia Tech? Arapahoe High School? What happened? Did somebody send a death threat? Did an angry student bring a gun to school? Were there rumors of a massacre?
No. A professor criticized staffing cuts and rhetorically compared them to historical abuses of power.
The professor is Timothy McGettigan, and he was upset about impeding layoffs spurred by budget woes. It's a controversial subject, with opponents arguing that the cuts are unnecessary. Professor McGettigan responded with a rhetorically flamboyant email to students and staff, comparing the looming cuts to the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, a bloody attack on striking miners and their families by Rockefeller-hired "security." McGettigan is vivid and impassioned:
The hitmen massacred those people. Coldly and methodically, the hitmen turned their guns
on women and children. The hitmen riddled the little tent village in Ludlow with bullets, and then they set that village alight. Amidst the screams of helpless, defenseless souls, the hitmen stood back and watched in satisfaction as the hopes and dreams of southern Coloradoans went up in smoke. That was a century ago. But what, if anything, has changed in southern Colorado?
. . .
In recompense for this unpardonable sin, CSU Chancellor Michael Martin has assembled a hit list. Today, Michael Martin is traveling to CSU-‐Pueblo to terminate the 50 people who are on his hit list. In his own way, Michael Martin is putting a gun to the head of those 50 hard-‐working people while he also throws a burning match on the hopes and dreams of their helpless, defenseless families.
Perhaps, like me, you think this rhetoric is overblown, even ridiculous. Perhaps, like me, you find it offensive, because it shows a public servant suggesting that he and other public servants are entitled to right to be paid with our tax dollars and that deprivation of that right is akin to murder. But even if the email is rhetorically execrable, it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, any sort of threat of violence. Rather, it's a historical reference, part of a millennia-old rhetorical tradition of condemning current policy by comparing it hyperbolically to past abuse.
Yet Colorado State University-Pueblo and President Lesley Di Mare have chosen, disingenuously and illegally, to treat it as a threat of violence. The university deactivated his email on the premise he had uttered a threat:
Hours after he sent the email, the university system removed his email account. A memo he received in printed form stated that the university had determined that he had violated a rule banning use of email to "intimidate, threaten, harass other individuals or interfere with the activity of others to conduct university business."
The memo from General Counsel Johnna Doyle spells it out:
This is perfectly ridiculous and unconstitutional. Because McGettigan is a public employee, the First Amendment places limits on a public university's ability to punish him for his speech. As the Ninth Circuit recently found, these public employee rights are at their most robust in the context of university professors debating public issues. The First Amendment does not protect true threats — that is, statements that a reasonable person would take as an actual threat to do violence — but it certainly does protect hyperbole and rhetoric that no reasonable person would take as a threat. McGettigan didn't even use a historical reference to a violent act to describe his own potential conduct; he used a historical reference to violence to describe what the university was doing. That's protected speech. It's not a close call. The actions of Colorado State University-Pubelo, President Di Mare, and General Counsel Doyle are lawless and frankly thuggish.
Such conduct is not new. Regrettably, too many modern university administrators and general counsel are a dishonestly censorious breed, bureaucrats like Di Mare and Doyle indifferent to constitutional rights and willing to invoke actual massacres and tragedies as insipid excuses to suppress dissent. Sinclair Community College invoked 9/11 and Virginia Tech to ban all protest signs. The University of Wisconsin-Stout invoked possible violence to ban a Firefly poster and a follow-up poster decrying government overreach. Front Range Community College comically demanded that students wanting to use a restrictive "free speech zone" sign waivers acknowledging the risk of death. Valdosta State University abused an expelled a student for a protest collage objecting to a new parking garage by claiming it was violent. These bureaucrats recognize the power of the cultural airhorn ""THINK OF THE CHILDREN!" and cynically invoke it to stop criticism. In doing so, the embody values antithetical to what a university should be.
Frankly I hope that someone uses vivid rhetoric to explain to Professor McGettigan that it's not violent to fail to pick my pocket to hire everybody he wants to hire. But first I'd like to see FIRE introduce President Di Mare and General Counsel Doyle to their little friend, the First Amendment. I'd like to see DiMare and Doyle meet the social consequences of lawless censorship. If you are so moved, send them an email.
Edited to add: FIRE sends a letter.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Free Speech Triumphant Or Free Speech In Retreat? - June 21st, 2017
- The Power To Generate Crimes Rather Than Merely Investigate Them - June 19th, 2017
- Free Speech, The Goose, And The Gander - June 17th, 2017
- Free Speech Tropes In The LA Times - June 8th, 2017
- I write letters - June 1st, 2017