Controversy Over A Professor's Poem Prompts Debate On Free Speech At U. of Alaska

April 2001

The president of the University of Alaska has issued a strongly worded memorandum defending free speech and urging administrators to be unambiguous when protecting that right for faculty members and students.

His actions countered statements by officials at the university's Anchorage campus, who responded to protests over a professor's poem by saying they were investigating the matter.

In the memorandum written last month to the university's three chancellors, President Mark R. Hamilton specifically mentioned the case of Linda McCarriston, a creative-writing professor at the Anchorage campus, who has been at the center of a controversy since late last year.

Her poem "Indian Girls" is about the sexual abuse of children. Some at the university characterized the poem as racist hate speech.

Protesters, mostly Native Alaskans and students, wrote to Ms. McCarriston's chairman, Ronald Spatz, demanding an apology for what they viewed as stereotypes of Native Alaskan men in the poem. Mr. Spatz responded by telling them that he had forwarded the messages to Kerry Feldman, an associate dean and "the person in charge of resolving such matters."

And Chancellor Edward Lee Gorsuch wrote an e-mail message to the leader of the protest saying that Mr. Feldman "is now actively dealing with the issues and events involved and is working toward a positive and appropriate result." Mr. Gorsuch also wrote, "It is the university's obligation to protect the rights of free speech and artistic license of both faculty and students, while at the same time fostering respect for the effects exercising such speech and license may have upon the values and rights of others."

But Mr. Hamilton said administrators needed to defend free speech more clearly: "Attempts to assuage anger or to demonstrate concern by qualifying our support for free speech serve to cloud what must be a clear message," he wrote in his memorandum. "Noting that, for example, 'The University supports the right to free speech, but we intend to check into this matter,' or 'The university supports the right of free speech, but I have asked Dean X or Provost Y to investigate the circumstances,' is unacceptable. There is nothing to 'check into,' nothing 'to investigate.' "

In a telephone interview last week, Mr. Hamilton was even more direct about protecting free speech: "As soon as you place a caveat on it, you curtail it. And then you're going straight to hell." Coincidentally, Mr. Hamilton, who is also a poet, had a poem in the same issue of the journal, Ice-Floe, that carried Ms. McCarriston's controversial work.

Ms. McCarriston, who described the protests outside her classroom over recent months as "harrowing," said she was relieved by the president's forceful defense.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that opposes what it calls political correctness, had championed Ms. McCarriston's cause in a letter to the university's president, urging him to publicly acknowledge her right to free speech. The group noted that the case was "especially indecent" in a creative-writing program. "Basically, they started an investigation into a professor because of a poem," said Thor L. Halvorssen, the group's executive director.

Mr. Feldman acknowledged that Mr. Spatz's response to the complaints "could have been written less ambiguously," but he said no one had ever asked him to investigate the poem. "And if it was requested of me, I would have refused," he said.

Many of the complaints, Mr. Feldman said, came from Native Alaskans who said they didn't feel the campus was a hospitable place for them. That issue, not the poem, was what he had been asked to deal with, Mr. Feldman said.

Attempts to reach Mr. Gorsuch and Mr. Spatz were unsuccessful.