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Posted at 9:30 AM ET, 06/ 1/2010

Clemson student charged for rude e-mail

By Valerie Strauss

Here’s another in a long list of overreactions by school officials to young people saying things in a way others would rather they didn’t.

I recently wrote about a case at Hinds Community College, the largest such institution in Mississippi, where an adult student was charged with “flagrant disrespect” for uttering a curse word after class. [I first wrote that all of the charges were dropped but they weren't.]

Now we turn to Clemson University in South Carolina, where a student got in trouble for using rude language in e-mails to an administrator during an online conversation.

Undergraduate William Kirwan was charged with “disorderly conduct,” “harassment,” “failure to comply with official request” and “misuse of computer” for using “language and tone” in e-mails found by school officials to be unacceptable, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a nonprofit foundation that advocates for free speech on campus.

Kirwan is head of the student organization called Central Spirit. An administrator, Laura McMaster, was trying to persuade him to participate in Clemson’s Fall Organizations Fair.

Kirwan did not want to, saying that past participation had not helped the organization recruit members. In a May 13 e-mail to McMaster with a copy to administrator Marty Kern, he wrote: "I’m not going to let you bully the organization into doing the things you want us to do or perceive as important."

He also stated that he trusted six previous Central Spirit presidents "over yours any day of the week and twice on Sunday,” and wrote that McMaster must have been "smoking crack" before trying to get him to participate in the fair.

Kern responded, saying that Kirwan’s language was “unacceptable” and, in a letter, ordered him to appear at a hearing and listed the charges mentioned above.

Kirwan refused to attend a hearing and asked FIRE for help. FIRE sent a letter to Clemson University President Jim Barker, saying that the charges violated Kirwan’s First Amendment rights of free speech. General Counsel Clay Steadman responded in his own letter that charges were being dropped and agreeing that the First Amendment “protects speech even when it is rude or offensive.”

It’s good that someone involved in this case understands the First Amendment.

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 1, 2010; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  Higher Education  | Tags:  1st amendment rights, Clemson University, FIRE, disorderly conduct charges, first amendment rights, free speech at school, free speech on campus, student charged for nasty email, student charged for rude email, student charged with disorderly conduct, the right to free speech  
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For this and the previous post (re Hinds Community College), are there any options for the school representative (the Clemson administrator or the HCC teacher)?
I have to agree with HRAnalyst's comment on the HCC post -
"Nothing about his behavior is appropriate in the college setting. The fact that so many people condone this as "free speech" demonstrates the continued erosion of etiquette and general respect for other people in our society."
So - what are the disrespected supposed to do? Just suck it up?
Personally, I think the Clemson student should be removed from his post as "president" (if not - somehow - otherwise disciplined (he needs to be slapped)) and the HCC student should be forced to retake the course.

Posted by: robjdisc | June 1, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

This is ridiculous.

My wife teaches at the college level (Northern Illinois University) and every semester she has to deal with this kind of nonsense from students who believe they should be permitted to say whatever they want in their e-mails.

These students are verbally aggressive and frequently call into question my wife's integrity. She has been blamed for students' failure to achieve, she has been accused of deliberately misleading students, and she has been made to bear the brunt of students' anger and frustration when they underachieve. These students would never say these kinds of things to my wife face-to-face, but they have no problem venting through e-mail. If they did say these things to her face, we'd call it harrassment.

I'm all for First Amendment rights, but at what point does a university employee's right to work without being harrassed trump a student's right to free speech?

The student you referenced in this article did not publish an opinion piece in the school newspaper. He sent a verbally aggressive e-mail directly to the administrator.

To suggest this student's behavior should be protected is offensive.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | June 1, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

While I wouldn't have ever written that to someone in an email, I think there's some background information missing for perspective... If this was the end of a long string of emails suggesting the student participate in the fair despite the student stating (probably more politely) that he did not want to, it seems a lot more reasonable than if it was a first-message out of the blue, which would be flat-out obnoxious.

Posted by: sarahee | June 1, 2010 11:09 PM | Report abuse

Do rude students know they are considered rude? After working in retail and watching parents and their children, I'm convinced that some youngsters grow up never being spoken to politely. I've seen youngsters get slapped for asking how close was lunch and one youngster was repeatedly told to "get your f__________hands off of that." (He had picked up the item his mother had just picked up, looked at, and put down.) I had a teacher who repeatedly told questioning students, "I've already explained that; I can't help it if you're too lazy to listen the first time." As a substitute teacher, I recently heard a teacher reprimand an interrupting student with the statement, "Two adults are talking; you should wait your turn." Not "two people" are talking--"two adults." On the other hand, I also have encountered students who automatically respond with "please" and "thank you." I really think students who are rude or can't make a statement without a four-letter word in it honestly think that's the way to behave when you're an adult.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | June 2, 2010 8:35 AM | Report abuse

I have read what was reported to be the string of e-mails. I hope I have all of the facts, but I am no investigator.

From what I know, I think that the administrator was polite, helpful and professional. The student, on the other hand, was belligerent, rude and utterly disrespectful. To put it simply, he sounded like a jerk. I am sure the administrator was taken aback by the response. It is my understanding that the student has resigned his post and apologized.

While I'm not convinced he should be charged with anything, I think that simply shining a light on the situation should be sufficient: publish his e-mail and therefore broadcast his ignorance, rudeness and immaturity to the world. Let him suffer the natural consequences of his actions. I certainly know that I would be mortified if such behavior of mine was made public.

As a Clemson alum, I have always been proud of the positive relationships between the students, faculty and administration. This type of thing is atypical and hopefully will remain so.

Posted by: 8992tiger | June 2, 2010 9:01 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps relevant to this:
"How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" - by Faber & Mazlish.
I'm not sure it provides any new or shocking material - but it at least puts it all in one place. (summary - it's all about respect, positive reinforcement, and eliciting discussion about emotions)

Posted by: robjdisc | June 2, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

First order of business when I get back to Clemson this fall: find this guy and buy him a beer, or leave one for him at Nick's.

It's good to know that there's somebody on campus that will stand up to administrators. I lost count at the number of times administrators just wouldn't listen to students for one reason or another. Aside from the smoking crack comment, the e-mail really was not that bad, and comes off more as an impassioned person dealing with somebody that just won't take no for an answer. He makes good points as to why he doesn't want the organization to take part, and apparently knows university policy well enough that they had to try and trump something up. Honestly, I've seen rougher exchanges in class, and I think that Clemson could use more students like him, rather than the ones that just roll over and do whatever they're told.

Posted by: 2011Tiger | June 2, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

Just to be clear, it sounds like the student wasn't charged with any crime but was ordered to appear in front of Clemson's student judicial boards. Clemson expects its students to comply not only with the law, but also with its own set of rights and responsibilities. While Clemson's code can't violate a student's Constitutional rights, it does mean that a student may face a punishment by the school even when they're not being charged with a crime.

So I suppose the issue is whether Clemson can mete out its own punishment for speech that violates no law. Students should be able to criticize the administration and the faculty, or anyone else for that matter, as it is their First Amendment right to do so. But should they be allowed to be abusive in their language directly towards faculty and the administration?

Posted by: camcgee97 | June 2, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

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