A national students’ rights group wants Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte to rescind a “gag order” it contends was unjustly issued to students who may be facing criminal charges related to cafeteria meal card fraud.
The university is investigating what officials have said could be a “criminal conspiracy” involving students and some employees of on-campus eateries. In announcing the investigation earlier this month, campus leaders told affected students they weren’t allowed to talk to anyone about the alleged fraud they’re accused of.
A university spokesperson has refused to give more details about the alleged fraud or comment on an email where campus leaders told students they cannot discuss the matter with anyone else.
That demand from the university could keep students from getting much-needed advice from an attorney, says Adam Steinbaugh, with FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The group sent a letter Tuesday to JCSU President Ron Carter saying the attempt to keep students quiet is a threat to fundamental rights to expression.
FIRE points out the university’s student handbook says “students have the right to engage in discussions, exchange thoughts and opinions, and speak freely on any subject in accordance with the guarantees of the state and federal constitutions.” The handbook also says students who face on-campus disciplinary review and possible criminal charges will have a right to an attorney.
“Yet the order imposed upon students at JCSU contravenes these clear promises, threatening to chill students’ ability to consult with an attorney while facing accusations of criminal conduct,” the letter from FIRE says.
The Observer asked Johnson C. Smith for a copy of any criminal complaints against students but was told the issue is, so far, being handled in-house by the university’s judicial review board.
FIRE asked the university to respond by Friday to its letter expressing concern about the gag order.
“Hopefully, the university comes to its senses,” said Steinbaugh. “If the university doesn’t back down, hopefully students will talk to us.”
By Tuesday, the university had not responded to FIRE’s letter and did not respond to the Observer’s questions.