Intimidating the Public Intellectual

North Carolina (my home state, though only in my heart today) has a government that brooks no opposition, one whose political leaders are themselves led by the exceedingly rich Art Pope (creator of the Civitas Institute and state Budget Director). Through this Institute, Pope (though not directly: he no longer runs the institute) tries to limit voting rights and further other right-wing initiatives.

On October 25, the Institute filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for:

the email correspondence, phone records, and calendars of Gene Nichol, director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity and a Moral Monday protest participant. It seeks Nichols’ records during the period from Sept. 14 through Oct. 25, the day the request was filed. Civitas submitted the FOIA request the week after Nichol wrote a newspaper column critical of the McCrory administration.

On December 16, according to WRAL.com:

Faculty from private and public universities delivered a letter… to the governor and his budget director, Art Pope, asking the two men to condemn Civitas’ request for emails and other records from UNC School of Law professor Gene Nichol.

Here is the letter:

To Governor McCrory and State Budget Director Art Pope,

As scholars from institutions of higher education throughout North Carolina and citizens committed to the constitutional right of free speech, we call on you to condemn the Civitas Institute’s demand for six weeks’ worth of personal email correspondence, phone logs, text messages, and calendar entries from Gene Nichol, Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the UNC School of Law.

This request is clearly in retribution for Professor Nichol’s public commentary critical of your administration. We write to both of you because it is public knowledge that, in the words of the Institute for Southern Studies, “Civitas gets over 90 percent of its funding from the Pope family foundation — so much so that the IRS classifies it as a ‘private foundation,’ a designation reserved for nonprofits that depend on a single benefactor.” Thus, citizens may reasonably infer that a sitting administration is using a private tax-exempt nonprofit organization funded by one of its leading officials to retaliate for criticism of its policies and intimidate future dissent. To our knowledge this action is unprecedented in our state’s political history.

Such an attempt at punishing speech ill befits an organization that purports in its mission statement to advance “liberty” and to “empower citizens to become better civic leaders.” Imagine if a nonprofit institution affiliated with an administration of the other party demanded the email of a conservative faculty critic. The Civitas Institute would be outraged; so would we.

Mr. Pope’s foundations are well aware that Professor Nichol is one of many North Carolina scholars who have begun publicly expressing concern about the direction of state policy since your administration took office. We believe the purpose of this action is not simply to retaliate against Professor Nichol but also to discourage future dissent from faculty in higher education. Such abuse of power to suppress critics should be condemned by all people of good will.

Scholars are citizens. Like all Americans, we have the right of free speech, freedom of assembly, and indeed the positive obligation to participate in public life “to form a more perfect Union.” Sometimes, our research expertise also bears directly on policy matters. To support smart policy and draw attention to misconceived or destructive policy is part of our responsibility as trained researchers and writers in a democratic nation.

We, the undersigned, from 61 departments and 24 institutions of higher education, call you to speak out publicly on this matter and to meet with a small delegation of faculty concerned about the future of free speech for employees of our public institutions.

Sincerely,

[Signed]

Rob Schofield of NC Policy Watch writes (h/t Diane Ravitch):

Predictable as this behavior is, however, what’s most disturbing about the attack on Nichol is the extremely worrisome precedent it sets. When the state’s most powerful public officials fund and maintain teams of private political attack groups at their disposal that can assail and intimidate critics – especially those whose very profession is founded upon their ability to think and speak freely – our state is headed down one very troubling road. The state Budget Director can deny all he wants that he has any influence over the actions of a group that he founded, named after his father and funds almost exclusively, but such claims are simply not credible. Anyone who thinks that he couldn’t put a stop to the Pope-Civitas attacks with one phone call (or probably just the mere nod of his head) is laughably deluded.

This sort of thing is happening more and more frequently today, as a focused and determined cadre of extremists flexes the muscles it gained through the 2010 state elections throughout the country. We who support the ideals of the AAUP and count ourselves as public intellectuals should be appalled when something like this happens and should add our own voices to the letter of concern from our North Carolina colleagues.

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