By: Matthew Keys
December 13, 2008
Sean Hetherington, a Sacramento-native now living in West Hollywood, was shocked when he received an e-mail from a university in Alabama allegedly from an educator, laced with strong and direct allegations.
The e-mail sent to Hetherington was in response to a campaign called Day Without A Gay, a grassroots effort in protest of California's Proposition 8, which eliminated marriage rights for same-sex couples when it passed during the recent November election. Along with his partner, Hetherington established Day Without A Gay, urging members of the gay and lesbian community to call in sick from work and not to purchase anything for one day.
The idea was good in theory, but spotty in participation according to organizers. Residents of San Francisco's predominantly-gay Castro district said they endorsed the message but felt it came at the wrong time given a downturn in the economy.
Along with the criticism of the campaign came the less-than-tasteful e-mails to Hetherington's campaign website.
"We get a fair amount of those, especially with the media coverage," Hetherington said by phone. "If they're unsupportive, we look to see on what grounds. What was interesting about this e-mail is there was no reason why they hate gay people. By the time we finished reading, we looked up and realized it was from a university."
The message allegedly came from a university e-mail address belonging to Pamala Gibson, an office associate within the Department of Physiology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.
"You freaks make me sick," the e-mail read. "You are the scourge of the earth and are responsible for everything that's wrong in this sorry world because of the immorality you have brought on this world as a whole."
We tried to contact Gibson via a phone number found on the university's website. Gibson answered the phone, but hung up after we identified ourselves as FOX40 News. Subsequent attempts to contact Gibson thereafter failed, and a message left on her phone mail system went unanswered.
While Gibson's speech would be protected under her First Amendment right under the US Constitution, it's not protected by her employer.
In an e-mail obtained by FOX40 News from a University of California, Davis activist, Alesia Jones, the Interim Chief Human Resources Officer at the University of Alabama said the university is aware of the e-mail sent from their school.
"[The University of Alabama at Birmingham] strives to create and maintain an environment that (sic) all of our employees feel valued," the e-mail read. "We are looking into this matter and will address according to our internal policies."
That's more of a response than Hetherington received. "I left a message and asked for a phone call to explain the university's acceptable-use policy," Hetherington said. "Nobody has contacted me. Nobody returned my phone call."
According to the University of Alabama's Electronic Media Policy, employees are urged to "use all electronic media available such as the Internet, e-mail, voice mail, and fax machines to their fullest potential to further the interests of the University." The policy also says e-mail is only for use regarding business associated with the school. "(Employees) should also be careful about how they represent themselves, given that what they say or do could be interpreted as University opinion or policy."
The school's own policy suggests the e-mail allegedly sent from Gibson may land her in hot water. But does it qualify as hate speech?
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, colleges and universities have seen an incline in expressions of intolerance since the mid-1980s, causing schools to adopt code prohibiting speech that is offensive regarding race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.
"That's the wrong response, well-meaning or not," the ACLU says in an article on its website. "The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Where racist, sexist and homophobic speech is concerned, the ACLU believes that more speech, not less, is the best revenge."
While it might be against her employer's policy, the e-mail allegedly produced by Gibson would be well-protected under the law as freedom of speech and expression. Unless a specific threat was made or the e-mail was sent repeatedly to harass a recipient, the act of sending the message would not qualify as a hate crime.
Individuals who do receive repetitively harassing e-mails and letters, or specific threats received by e-mail, have resources to turn to. The Sacramento Gay & Lesbian Center offers a legal clinic on the first and third Monday of every month staffed by the Lambda Law Students from UC Davis.
ON THE NET:
Day Without A Gay
ACLU Article On Hate Speech
University of Alabama Electronic Media Policy
UC Davis Lambda Law Students Association
Sacramento Gay and Lesbian Center Legal Clinic