Recently, an untenured English instructor named Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams took great offense in response to a series of pro-Trump “chalkings” on the sidewalks outside of UNC-Wilmington’s Morton Hall. Rather than simply respecting the speech of her political opponents she decided to censor it by pouring water on the messages with which she disagreed. Predictably, she then tried to justify the viewpoint-based censorship in the name of adherence to the UNCW Seahawk Respect Compact.
Fortunately, some College Republicans (CRs) as well as some people working with the Leadership Institute (LI) gave me a heads up about what the instructor had done. Later, I was able to access Abrams’ Facebook page and get twenty screenshots proving she had suppressed the constitutionally protected speech of members of a registered student organization. In fact, she bragged about it publicly by saying, “I just erased the last of them.” She went on to admit the extent of her lawlessness by adding, “There were so many!”
For that offense alone, the untenured censor should be fired.
The screenshots I obtained were also sent to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The evidence showed that three other professors joined in the conversation after Abrams posted pictures of the speech she had openly bragged of censoring. It is noteworthy that none of the other three professors condemned Abrams. In fact, a fellow English instructor offered to give Abrams a “bear hug” as a reward for the censorship.
I next wrote UNCW Chancellor Jose Sartarelli and urged him to consider issuing a statement of condemnation immediately. Out of my immense respect for Sartarelli, I gave his administration a chance to respond before going public with the story. Fortunately, a local news station quoted Abrams as having said, “I only erased chalkings with blatantly racist content as those appeared to constitute hate speech and were clearly in violation of the Seahawk Respect Compact.”
It is worth walking our way through Abrams’ thought process. First, she admits to erasing “Vote for Trump.” Next, she alleges that everything she erased was “blatantly racist” and in violation of the Seahawk Respect Compact. Therefore, she must have concluded that the simple phrase “Vote for Trump” constitutes racism.
Instructor Abrams also claimed that there were other “racist” messages written on the sidewalk. Specifically, she claimed that one message said, “Keep America White” and another said, “Build that Wall.” Obviously, had those messages been chalked on the sidewalk they too would have been protected speech. However, we can safely conclude that Abrams’ claims of exposure to such messages were contrived. Her Facebook page showed that she took pictures of the “Vote for Trump” chalkings before she erased them. It is unlikely that Abrams would erase her best evidence of racism before taking pictures of it, too.
The university initially responded to media inquiries by saying Abrams was acting as an individual, not as a representative of the university. But that wasn’t entirely true. She was acting on a misguided but common interpretation of the Seahawk Respect Compact. Therefore, the university had an obligation to respond to the incident and to do so publicly. Put simply, UNCW policies do not trump the constitution. So I wrote to Chancellor Sartarelli a second time and stated the following:
“It is high time the university took seriously my claims, which have now been conclusively demonstrated to be true, that the Seahawk Respect Compact is doing the exact opposite of what it was intended to do. It is fostering a lack of respect for free speech. It is undermining civility and it is creating a hostile environment for free expression.”
My letter had the intended effect. Jose Sartarelli responded with a public statement that made me proud to have him as our chancellor. It was nothing less than a public rebuke of Abrams. It also served as a model for how university presidents should respond to fascists posing as educators.
Here are a few highlights of Sartarelli’s message:
*“We are an institution of learning and a marketplace of ideas, and a campus that doesn’t just permit but actively encourages our population to engage in dialogue about sensitive topics.”
*“The safety of those who wish to express their viewpoints is of utmost importance. In turn, the safety of those exposed to those expressions is also critical. I do believe it is important to note that not agreeing with an opinion shouldn’t be equated with feeling threatened by it.”
*“Our Seahawk Respect Compact is aimed at helping guide us with civility and respect throughout the exchange of ideas and opinions. The Compact is not an enforceable policy but an aspirational document, aimed at fostering a community of mutual respect and openness.”
*“It has been some time since the Respect Compact was signed, in October of 2008, and this academic year, I plan to gather input from university constituents and consider revisions that will continue to reflect our values and our growth since the Compact was created.”
A more concise way of expressing those four points follows:
*If you can’t take the heat, get the hell out of the kitchen.
*It’s time for Hannah Abrams put on her big girl panties.
*The U.S. Constitution trumps the Respect Compact, not the other way around.
*For those who cannot understand the previous points, we are going to rewrite the Compact in language simple enough for an untenured fascist to understand.
In short, the UNCW Chancellor seems to have answered all of our lingering questions with the possible exception of one: “Why isn’t Jose Sartarelli running for president of the United States?”
He’s got my vote.