Free speech group: Ongoing UNC leak investigation violates First Amendment, creates “chilling effect”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education isn’t satisfied with UNC-Chapel Hill’s answers to lingering questions about the school’s investigation of a leaked donor agreement.

Earlier this month, Policy Watch reported  the investigation into the school’s contract with mega-donor Walter Hussman included reading faculty e-mails and questioning professors who have been critical of the Arkansas publisher and alumnus, who pledged $25 million to the school’s journalism school in 2019.

Hussman’s behind-the-scenes lobbying against the hiring of acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones drew new attention to his influence at the university and was a major factor in Hannah-Jones turning down an eventual tenure offer from the school and instead going to Howard University. When the donor agreement between Hussman and the school was published by the News & O

bserver, the school  launched an investigation into the leak.

As part of the ongoing investigation, faculty have been made aware that the contract was on the school’s  server Database for Advancing our Vision of Institutional Excellence (DAVIE) server for months, where hundreds of people would have potentially had access to it.

FIRE previously questioned why the investigation appeared to be centering on professors who had been critical of Hussman’s behavior and the school allowing him access to a confidential hiring process. Those faculty members do not appear to have had access to the contract of the server on which it was available.

In a new letter this week, FIRE said the school’s explanation that it has an interest in investigating leaks to keep such agreements confidential is inadequate.

From that letter:

Assuming that the disclosure of the Hussman donor agreement did, in fact, breach university policy, an investigation into this alleged policy breach should be reasonably limited to those who had actual access to the disclosed document before its disclosure to the Raleigh News & Observer. Here, UNC has instead reportedly targeted faculty members, including journalism professors Deb Aikat and Daniel Kreiss, who did not have regular, pre-disclosure access to the Hussman agreement, as explained in our letter of August 4.

The breadth of UNC’s search of faculty email accounts has not only violated its own policy, but it has also imperiled academic freedom and individual privacy.

First, UNC’s probe into the email accounts of those who had no pre-disclosure access to the Hussman agreement is not “reasonably necessary to acquire the information” needed to investigate that disclosure. To the extent an email probe was necessary at all, an investigation targeted at that which is “reasonably necessary” instead would focus on, for example, the administrators, development personnel, or administrative staff who had actual access to the document in question in UNC’s Database for Advancing our Vision of Institutional Excellence (DAVIE) before the document was disclosed to the News & Observer.

Second, UNC’s probe will cause a chilling effect on faculty speech and academic freedom. In addition to the chill already caused by UNC’s inquiry and its requests to meet with certain outspoken faculty members, as discussed in our previous letter, faculty will now experience further chill, knowing that their emails are potentially being monitored by university administrators. This chill will not only affect conversations critical to the university, but will also affect conversations related to research and pedagogy.

Research and pedagogy—issues at the core of the traditional right to academic freedom—often cover controversial topics, and faculty members may fear retaliation if university administrators have access to personal notes and conversations related to academic pursuits.

It continues to appear that UNC has targeted outspoken faculty, including Kreiss and Aikat, not because it credibly believes these professors were involved in disclosure of the Hussman
agreement, but because they publicly criticized the university. As explained in our previous correspondence, nothing indicates Kreiss’ or Aikat’s criticism was based on access to confidential information not already obtained by the media.


Read the full letter here.

In the letter, FIRE asks for more information about how the investigation is being conducted, including whether those with access to the DAVIE server were interviewed. The group has asked for a response by August 25.




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