News: CJ Exclusives

Trouble at Raleigh’s Shaw University

Free speech at issue in firing, eviction

Last fall Raleigh’s Shaw University fired a professor for “disloyalty” and evicted a student from campus housing over a faculty resolution criticizing Shaw President Talbert O. Shaw and the Board of Trustees.

Dr. Gale Isaacs, head of the Department of Allied Health, admitted to helping write a resolution criticizing the historically black private university on several grounds. Dated Oct. 24, 2002, the resolution called for an assessment of the Board of Trustees’ performance and for Shaw to step down by Dec. 31, as he had earlier indicated he would do.

The resolution cited the “present atmosphere of contention and distrust of the Faculty and Staff… with regard to The Shaw University Board of Trustees, the Academic Administration and the sitting President,” accused Shaw of “failure to maintain the academic integrity of this University (and this with the sanction of the Board of Trustees), and Shaw “ceased to lead this University two years ago when he allowed the office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs to become a travesty, …has distanced himself from current academic policy and faculty governance, and… no longer has the respect and confidence of the faculty.”

Isaacs’s employment at Shaw, where she had been since 1986 after receiving her doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was terminated Nov. 16, and she was banned from campus. In her termination letter, Shaw wrote, “The ‘Resolution’ demonstrated faithlessness in and disloyalty to the University and exhibited an unwillingness to work for the common good of the University.”

The American Association of University Professors sent a letter to President Shaw on behalf of Isaacs seeking her reinstatement.

The student, Shaniqua Bizzell, was originally expelled from the university, but her expulsion was repealed because she was near graduation (December 2002) and had a clean record. Bizzell, a member of student government, had distributed and read aloud Isaac’s resolution in the student center. For that she was kicked out of campus housing effective Nov. 15.

In a letter announcing the eviction, Vice President for Student Affairs Vaughan Witten said Bizzell was responsible for “causing damage to the reputation of those falsely exposed to the scurrilous accusations [in the resolution], and creating an unstable and disruptive element in the university’s fabric of academic integrity and general expression of its mission.”

“Though your actions of verbally reading the unsigned-false allegations in public and later copying and distributing said document were misguided and supported by your belief in your unfettered Constitutional First Amendment Right of free speech, you apparently did not consider that the right to free speech, is not absolute and must be restrained in the context of possible harm to the target of said speech, for instance, you can’t yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater and claim first amendment privileges,” Witten said. “In fact, Ms. Bizzell, no freedoms are absolute, for an individual’s freedom only extends to the point that it infringes upon, or harms another.”

Bizzell has hired a lawyer and is pursuing redress against the university for breach of contract and causing her mental anguish by denying her room and meals. “As a student body leader, it was my duty to tell the students” of the resolution, Bizzell told The News & Observer of Raleigh. “There’s a bunch of dirty business going on at Shaw.”

She also said, “I cannot tell you the hurt that is in my heart, because I love Shaw University dearly.”

‘Resembling a dictatorship’

In January the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit education foundation devoted to individual liberty on college campuses, also sent President Shaw a letter over the controversy. In a letter dated Jan. 13, 2003, Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy, wrote, “Terminating a professor for such criticism shows utter contempt for the foundational principles of democracy and transforms a university into something more resembling a dictatorship than a place of learning in society.”

Lukianoff said Shaw University failed to uphold its own principles, reciting the university’s promises that “Shaw University endorses the concept of academic freedom” and promises unfettered “Participation in Political Activity.” “The right to criticize the administration and the sitting president of a university is well within the customary understanding of what free speech and academic freedom mean in this country,” Lukianoff wrote. Lukianoff expressed shock over the “discrepancy between Shaw University’s actions here and the customary practice of virtually every other university in the nation.”

Lukianoff also wrote that the matter “undoubtedly will become a public scandal unless Shaw University takes immediate and comprehensive corrective action. If we do not hear back from you within one week of the date of this letter, FIRE will use its full media and legal resources to support Gale Isaacs and, ultimately, to see this matter through to a just conclusion.”

On Jan. 15, 2003, Shaw, citing that last statement, wrote in response: “In light of your statement, we have been advised by our attorneys not to respond to your letter.”

Sanders is assistant editor at Carolina Journal.