NC scholars denounce conservative think tank's demand for professor's email

Scholars for North Carolina's Future circulated an open letter calling on Gov. Pat McCrory and budget director Art Pope to condemn a Pope-funded think tank's broad request for correspondence from UNC law professor and administration critic Gene Nichol, getting almost 300 signatures in less than a week.

A delegation of scholars from North Carolina colleges and universities delivered an open letter to Gov. Pat McCrory and state Budget Director Art Pope today, calling on them to condemn a request from a Pope-funded think tank for the correspondence and other materials from a UNC professor who's been an outspoken critic of the administration.

As Facing South first reported last month, the Civitas Institute -- a Raleigh-based nonprofit that bills itself as "North Carolina's conservative voice" and that was founded and is almost wholly funded by Pope -- filed a broad freedom of information request seeking emails and other records from UNC law professor Gene Nichol. Civitas is seeking Nichol's email, phone logs, text messages and calendar entries over a six-week period.

The director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, Nichol has participated in the Moral Monday protests against the agenda of the McCrory administration and the Republican supermajority-controlled legislature. Civitas, which was also behind a controversial database of Moral Monday arrestees, filed its request the week after Nichol wrote a newspaper column that was harshly critical of the state's restrictive new voting law. It called McCrory "a 21st century successor to Maddox, Wallace and Faubus," referring to the segregationist governors of Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas.

In a letter dated Dec. 14, almost 300 faculty and graduate students from 24 public and private institutions of higher education across the state called on McCrory and Pope "to condemn the Civitas Institute's demand." They write:

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 affiliation with an administration of the other party demanded the email of a conservative faculty critic. The Civitas Institute would be outraged; so would we.

The scholars' letter also states the concern that the purpose of the information request "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."

Read the full letter here.

Nichol has said he is complying with the request, though the university is allowing him to go through the records and identify personal ones from family and others that should be excluded.

The protest letter's nearly 300 signatures were collected in less than a week, according to petition organizer Nancy MacLean, William H. Chafe professor of history and public policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C. The signatories are from a range of fields including economics, history, education, computer science, law, marine biology, medicine, and religious studies. The letter was circulated by Scholars for North Carolina's Future, an organization of faculty and graduate students working to encourage informed conversations about state policy and to promote inclusive democracy and prosperity for all.

"The response has been far beyond anything we imagined," said MacLean. "Never before in state history have so many scholars from so many institutions of higher learning felt compelled to petition a sitting Governor on an issue that cuts to the heart of a free and open democracy."

UPDATE: After this story was posted, Gov. McCrory responded through spokesperson Ryan Tronovitch, who told WRAL News: "A public university professor is a public employee subject to the same public records rules as all state employees. While Professor Nichol might think himself to be special just because he runs the John Edwards poverty center, he does not get special treatment."