A dozen professors from seven universities in North Carolina hand delivered a letter to the governor’s office Monday, decrying the conservative Civitas Institute for its pursuit of public records of UNC-Chapel Hill law professor Gene Nichol.
The letter, addressed to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and State Budget Director Art Pope, said the Civitas request “is clearly in retribution for Professor Nichol’s public commentary critical of your administration.”
Nichol, director of law school’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, wrote a stinging criticism of McCrory in an opinion column for The News & Observer’s editorial pages. A short time later, the Civitas Institute, which receives a majority of funding from Pope’s family foundation, requested six weeks worth of email, phone logs, text messages and calendar entries for Nichol.
Nancy MacLean, a history and public policy professor at Duke University, said the Civitas request was an abuse of the open records law for a partisan purpose. “This is a very dangerous practice in a free society, in an open, functioning democracy, for people to be having their records subpoenaed for fishing expeditions to try to catch them in some kind of thing that Civitas can then say is wrong,” said MacLean, who is co-chair of a left-leaning group called Scholars for North Carolina’s Future.
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Civitas was on hand at the event. Jim Tynen, Civitas communications director, said the records request was not a fishing expedition. “We’ve asked for public records over about a six-week span, because we have a long-time interest: what does the poverty center do?” Tynen said.
Tynen said Pope is no longer on the Civitas board and did not know about the records request.
The professors’ letter is signed by faculty from 24 higher education institutions. It calls on McCrory and Pope to speak out publicly on the matter and meet with a delegation of faculty concerned about “the future of free speech for employees of our public institutions.”
McCrory’s office said the issue was between Nichol and The Civitas Institute.
“The Raleigh press corps – and consequently these professors – should be aware that the Governor’s office shares concerns with the extensive and time consuming public records request process that creates a financial burden on the North Carolina taxpayer,” spokesman Ryan Tronovitch said in a statement. “That said, 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.”