Prof's 'f-word' e-mail to conservative group sparks controversy

BY SARAH BULMER | APRIL 21, 2011 7:20 AM

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A University of Iowa professor likely won't face punishment for a controversial e-mail she sent to members of the UI College Republicans this week.

UI anthropology/women's studies Professor Ellen Lewin's response to a universitywide e-mail sent by UI College Republicans, which promoted "Conservative Coming Out Week," has drawn fire for its profanity and what some called a lack of profesionalism.

"F*CK YOU, REPUBLICANS," Lewin wrote in response to the mass message, which provided a list of activities the conservative organization would sponsor this week.

UI spokesman Tom Moore said it is too early to know what, if any, action the university would take against Lewin. But UI Faculty Senate President Edwin Dove said she likely won't be punished for the comments.

And UI Associate Professor Lyombe Eko, a free-speech expert in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said Lewin's statement is protected under the First Amendment, noting universities are not enclaves immune from free speech.

"She is within her rights," he said. "However, in an academic environment where the stock in trade is ideas, such outbursts can leave a lot to be desired."

Dove agreed Lewin shouldn't have responded to the student organization with an expletive.

"There's an expectation that, when you disagree with a viewpoint, that you do so respectfully in every way," he said. "Certainly wasn't very wise."

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On Wednesday, Lewin apologized for her remarks.

"I'm afraid I lost my temper and did something very regrettable," Lewin said in an e-mail to The Daily Iowan. "I responded to an e-mail from the UI College Republicans with a profanity. It was not appropriate, let alone professional, for me to use it."

Lewin also sent an apology e-mail to members of College Republicans shortly after the head of her department, James Enloe, sent her a message asking to speak with her immediately. Enloe had been forwarded the messages by Natalie Ginty, the 21-year-old president of the Iowa Federation of College Republicans.

But in a follow-up e-mail to the group, Lewin detailed her concerns. She said several parts of the group's original e-mail "were extremely offensive, nearly rising to the level of obscenity."

In that latter message, Lewin also noted Ginty's use of her first name.

"She referred to me as Ellen, not Professor Lewin, which is the correct way for a student to address a faculty member, or indeed, for anyone to refer to an adult with whom they are not acquainted," she wrote. "I do apologize for my intemperate language, but the message you all sent out was extremely disturbing and offensive."

Lewin also criticized the student organization for using the term "coming out," saying it was "appropriating the language of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights movement." And the group's reference to the Wisconsin protests suggested the demonstrations were "frivolous attempts" to avoid work, she said.

A Friday event, called the "Animal Rights Barbecue," also bothered Lewin, who said it was "extremely insensitive to those who consider animal rights an important cause." The College Republicans have hosted similar cookouts in the past, which have mocked the advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals by grilling a lot of meat.

The UI College Republicans faced some criticism in 2007 for hosting a capture the flag game called "Catch an Illegal Immigrant" as part of its second Conservative Coming Out Week. Two teams — the "illegal immigrants" and the "border patrol" — competed.

In response to Lewin's thread of messages, UI College Republicans faculty adviser Tim Hagle said her apology was half-hearted.

"Your initial apology, though qualified, was at least a step in the right direction," Hagle wrote to Lewin. "The 'additional note' only served to retract the apology and was an apparent attempt to justify your initial response."

In the midst of the discourse, UI President Sally Mason sent a campuswide e-mail with the subject line "Freedom of Expression and Civil Debate."

"Student organizations are sometimes formed along political lines and act on their political beliefs," Mason wrote. "Even if we personally disagree with those viewpoints, we must be respectful of those viewpoints in every way. Intolerant and disrespectful discord is not acceptable behavior."

Lewin — who studies same-sex relationships and, in particular, gay fathers — wasn't the only one upset with the group's use of the term "coming out."

Adam Lewis, the manager of the UI Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center, said he supports the organization's right to free speech. But coming out as gay and coming out as Republican are far from similar, he said.

"By coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, you face the possibility of getting kicked out of your home, your parents' disapproval, and the majority of religions telling you you're an abomination for who you are," Lewis said.

UI graduate student Kristen DeGree said the College Republicans' use of the term is highly offensive.
"It's something that's associated with gay culture," the 26-year-old said.

DeGree said the methods used by the organization are "quite cynical."

But John Twillmann, the chairman of the UI College Republicans, said that argument is faulty, because "coming out" is just a term that isn't copyrighted or owned by anyone.

"It's being open and honest," he said. "You can come out, come clean about many things, and we're coming out about being conservative."

And Christopher Pickett, 24, said that while there's nothing wrong with getting the message out, the satirical nature of the Conservative "Coming Out Week" retards the progress of the organization's efforts.

"By lampooning [the issue], you're taking away its agency," he said.

Before last year, UI College Republicans took a two-year break from the weeklong series of events because of the volume of hateful remarks they received.

But on Wednesday, members of the group stood in front of the Pentacrest passing out fake doctors' notes for students "sick of being stressed," in an effort to mimic the Wisconsin public workers who used such notes to protest for their collective-bargaining rights.

College Republicans members handed out doctors notes with personalized messages such as "Due to a case of: It's almost finals," and "Due to a case of: It's 4/20."

"We're obviously somewhat mocking the union protesters in Wisconsin and how some of them skipped work to go to the Capitol and protest," Ginty said.

As for Lewin's remarks, she said, it's something they'd expect from a student but not a professor.

"When we get an e-mail from a socialist group, do we respond? No, of course not. We delete it," Ginty said. "When a professor e-mails us some vulgar comments, that's a little different."

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