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Federal Government Steps Into Free Speech Debate At UNC

Posted March 31, 2004

— Free speech in the classroom is now at the center of a federal investigation. Some UNC students and faculty believe an incident involving an e-mail has been blown out of proportion.

A Feb. 6 e-mail from UNC Professor Elyse Crystall started the controversy. After a student made a comment against homosexuality in her class, she responded in an e-mail to the other students that the comments were considered "hate speech" and "completely unacceptable." In the e-mail, Crystal referred to the student as a "white, heterosexual, Christian male."

After complaints from State Rep. Walter B. Jones and others, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights started an investigation of UNC.

"A number of outside political interests are trying to make the university into nothing more than a Republican versus Democratic debating society," UNC Sociology Professor Andrew Perrin said.

Crystall has not responded publicly about the incident, but she gave students a letter to read.

"This investigation could have important effects on civil rights law in this country," she said.

Crystall said students' e-mail will be turned over to investigators, which she believes is a violation of privacy. However, some students said the investigation is needed.

"This is not an isolated thing. This kind of thing happens all the time -- professors attacking students because they disagree," student Debra McCown said.

University officials would not speak to WRAL on Wednesday, but UNC Chancellor James Moeser said, in a statement, that the university will cooperate fully with the investigation. In the statement, he also said that academic freedom is at UNC's core.

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