Grad student suspended after pro-gun-rights e-mail

Student sends angry e-mail messages slamming school policy and then is suspended and required to undergo a "mental health evaluation."

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
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A Minnesota university has suspended one of its graduate students who sent two e-mail messages to school officials supporting gun rights.

Hamline University also said that master's student Troy Scheffler, who owns a firearm, would be barred from campus and must receive a mandatory "mental health evaluation" after he sent an e-mail message arguing that law-abiding students should be able to carry firearms on campus for self-defense.

Hamline spokesman Jacqueline Getty declined on Wednesday to answer questions about the suspension, saying that federal privacy laws prohibited the school from commenting. Scheffler had previously waived his privacy rights in a letter to Hamline University President Linda Hanson.

Hamline University President Linda Hanson, who said the school "acted carefully" in suspending its pro-gun rights student

The nonpartisan civil liberties group FIRE, which stands for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has taken up Scheffler's case, but with no luck so far. In a letter to FIRE on September 28, Hamline's attorneys said the school would not reconsider Scheffler's punishment.

Scheffler had sent the pair of e-mail messages after Hamline offered students counseling after the Virginia Tech shooting in April, which took place half a continent away. His response was that, if administrators were truly concerned about safety on campus, they should "lift a ridiculous conceal carry campus ban and let the students worry about their own 'security.'"

Scheffler is licensed under Minnesota law to carry a concealed sidearm, which requires a background check and specific training.

In May, after word got out about Scheffler's punishment but before FIRE became involved, conservative blogs rallied to his defense. A psychologist in Tennessee called it a case of university officials learning that "a conservative is on the loose on campus." Captain's Quarters interviewed Scheffler about so-called gun-free zones and concluded he was a "nice guy caught up in the academic manifestations of political correctness."

That's the high-level summary. Some of the details are important, though.

Angry e-mails: One point is that while Scheffler's e-mails were not threatening, they were angry and had sexist and racist overtones. Read them for yourself: The first, to Vice President of Student Affairs David Stern, said: "I myself am tired of having to pay my own extremely overpriced tuition to make up for minorities not paying theirs. On top of that, I am sick of seeing them held to a different standard than the white students (Of course its a lower and more lenient standard)."

The second message, to President Linda Hanson, said: "For a 'Christian' university, I am very disappointed in Hamline. With the motif of the curriculum, the atheist professors, jewish and other non-Christian staff, I would charge the school with wanton misrepresentation...3 out of 3 students just in my class that are 'minorities' are planning on returning to Africa and all 3 are getting a free education ON MY DOLLAR." (Hamline is affiliated with the United Methodist Church and claims to promote "the ethics and values of the United Methodist tradition.")

Even some libertarians who think Scheffler was ill-treated have criticized his grammar and approach. A professor at Brooklyn College who believes the suspension was unjustified said he was nevertheless "dismayed that (Scheffler) has progressed to the master's degree level without having mastered some aspects of basic grammar."

"Privacy" rights: What's odd is that Hamline initially claimed the e-mail messages were "threatening" and placed Scheffler on an indefinite suspension that required him to undergo a mental health evaluation, a possible "treatment plan," an interview with the dean of students, and so on. The possibility of "further" internal discipline was also mentioned.

But then, after FIRE pointed out being suspended for expressing political views violated the school's freedom of expression policy, President Hanson retreated to a fallback position. Hanson said that the suspension was also based on "critical input from various members of the Hamline community."

The bizarre thing is that to this day, Hamline has never informed Scheffler what those anonymous allegations were (or who his anonymous accusers are). It claims that Scheffler's formal waiver of his rights under federal privacy law is insufficient because it has to "protect the privacy rights and interests of these other individuals."

FIRE's Harvey Silverglate quipped: "Confidentiality is so protected at American colleges and universities that they don't even let the students know what the charges are!"

Hamline's response: I spoke with Hamline spokesman Jacqueline Getty on the phone on Wednesday and exchanged six e-mail messages with her, but never actually got an answer to why the school wouldn't answer general questions about student free speech rights and due process.

All she gave me was this statement:

Hamline has never suspended a student for advocating for gun rights, nor for advocating for any other rights...As we have already informed FIRE, federal privacy laws that protect the rights of that student actually prevent the university from correcting each item of misinformation on FIRE's press release and from articulating in detail what may have transpired with this student.

This misses the point. If there are serious allegations against Scheffler, he has a right under the student code to hear them and be able to respond. It's hardly appropriate to base a suspension and mandatory psychological evaluation on anonymous and undefined allegations that may not even exist.

It's also inappropriate, especially in light of the Cleveland shooting on Wednesday, to try to squelch discussion of whether holders of concealed carry permits should be able to bring their sidearms on campus. It's already legal at the University of Utah and other states are considering the idea of eliminating victim disarmament zones. That may be a good idea; it may not. But universities should try to encourage debate rather than punish students for poorly written rants broaching the topic.