Grambling State University (GSU) is in a constitutional controversy with the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education over a recent e-mail sent by its president.

According to Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU’s Louisiana chapter, an e-mail sent to students on July 13 from university president Dr. Frank Pogue prohibited students from “implying support for a candidate” via e-mail and would be considered “a violation of state policy.” Esman believes this is a violation of Grambling students’ First Amendment rights.

The AFRO obtained a copy of the e-mail sent to students which states: “Individuals who receive political campaign solicitations via university e-mail are advised to delete these emails upon receipt. 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 university and state policy.”

“This policy cannot stand,” Esman wrote in a letter to Pogue, according to the Associated Press. “A public university may not broadly deny its students the right to engage in such basic political speech. In fact, a university should encourage broad debate on issues of public importance, rather than censor speech.”

In an ambiguous letter dated Sept. 23 Pogue responded to the foundation, saying that the e-mail distributed in July does not reflect the school’s current policy on e-mail use. The Pogue letter further asserts that such policy does not restrict e-mail campaign solicitation by stating “Grambling State University does not have an e-mail policy restricting campaign solicitation,”.

Grambling State later issued another e-mail but this time it was a policy directed to university employees that Vanessa Littleton, GSU’s director of public relations, said indicates the university does not prohibit political expression.

A copy of this subsequent policy e-mail was sent by Littleton to the AFRO and outlines specific offenses regarding the use of the university’s e-mail system including “the creation or distribution of any disruptive or offensive messages, including offensive comments about race, gender, hair color, disabilities, age, sexual orientation, pornography, religious beliefs and practice, political beliefs, or national origin.”

“We do not have a similar policy for students,” said Littleton.

The ACLU and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education issued a joint statement on Sept. 23 condemning GSU’s revised e-mail policy, and said that the school remained in violation of free speech protection.

“It’s too vague and too broad a prohibition on offensive terms. Students are left to figure out what others find offensive and might begin to self censor. This can have a very chilling effect on the First Amendment,” said Will Creeley, the foundation’s director of legal and public advocacy.

“We work with a network of attorneys and while we don’t engage in litigation ourselves, if a student were to face disciplinary action if found in violation of the current policy there might be a possibility of legal action. Just maintaining such a policy is in violation of the First Amendment,” he said.

Creeley said the foundation will continue to monitor the situation and implores Grambling State to “do the right thing.”

“We’re not taking our eyes off the issue,” he said. 

Melissa Jones

Special to the AFRO