Georgia Tech emails about ‘Cop City’ post censorship read like an unfunny sitcom

Concern about the “inflammatory” use of the term “Cop City” was one reason behind Georgia Tech’s censorship last month of a student journalist’s first-person account of critical reporting on Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center, internal emails reveal.

The emails read like a script for a sitcom about self-important bureaucrats and butt-covering bosses screwing up the earnest work of a college department’s staff. Some of the officious officials are seen scrambling into the wee hours, struggling to think of a way for censorship of a student journalist to not look like censorship – all while the school was planning, just days later, to honor a famous and powerful CNN journalist with a $100,000 prize for “social courage.” 

It’s all pretty funny, except the joke is on everyone at Georgia Tech and the public served by a state school’s mission to discover and disseminate knowledge. Silliness is a well-worn path for agents of the state to become censors, as they did in this case. The emails reveal an intent to suppress controversy and mislead the public, which should heighten concern about the politicization of state schools and the establishment’s pattern of attacking any dissent about the training center.

The email debates

The emails show that the IT policy and notion of any website being an official school voice were indeed cited – but as a bludgeon against content officials unilaterally decided, without any external complaint, was “inflammatory” and had to go, especially the term “Cop City.” Far from a sober policy review, what transpired was an instant panic involving at least 15 different Georgia Tech officials and staff members, many of them brainstorming ways to kill or alter the post as late as 4:55 a.m.

The ad-hoc ideas included killing the post outright and having an “access denied” page – which apparently briefly happened by accident in the comical frenzy – or tricking readers into going to a different interview with Ip posted on the site years before. The less extreme censorship of watered-down language came only after pressure from SLS staff that Ip should be involved and that they risked a censorship controversy. Ip’s own publicizing of the post also made it impossible for the officials to completely kill it, they complained.

The lead in suppressing the post was taken by Louise M. Russo, interim vice president of Institute Communications and assistant vice president of Strategic Marketing. A number of other high-ranking Georgia Tech officials were involved, including Meeks; Steven P. Girardot, vice provost for Undergraduate Education; Laurence J. Jacobs, a professor and senior vice provost for Education and Learning in the College of Engineering; Bert Reeves, vice president of Institute Relations; Steven Norris, director of media relations and social media; and Kathleen T. Gosden, chief counsel for Student Life & Academic Affairs. It appears that some of those officials are in a committee or working group for the IT policy that became one of the censorship mechanisms.

The saga began pleasantly enough on March 23, when SLS staff member Ruthie C. Yow invited Ip to write the post about his Xylom article. “It’s a brilliant piece and we would love to share it widely,” she wrote. On April 11, after Ip submitted the post that would be censored, Yow called it “gorgeous.”

On April 17, when SLS circulated Ip’s post as one of many in its email newsletter. The trouble appears to have begun when the newsletter was forwarded without comment to Girardot, the vice provost, by Leslie N. Sharp, the dean of libraries. Jacobs, the senior vice provost, later forwarded the newsletter to Russo with the comment, “Just a heads-up for situational awareness in case you have not seen it.”

Russo, a career marketing and brand-management executive, responded by starting a pattern of viewing Ip’s post through her particular lens. “This is indeed of concern as it conflicts with the acceptable use policies in my assessment… of course the student is welcome to draft this content on their own but, given that it’s on a gatech [sic] site, it’s a reflection of the institute,” she responded to Jacobs.

An hour later, Russo emailed several officials to say that she had spoken further with Jacobs and Gosden, the Georgia Tech attorney. “Kathleen and I are in agreement that this content should be removed from the site, as anything on a Georgia Tech-hosted website is considered speaking on behalf of the Institute,” Russo wrote, adding, “…Kathleen’s team has been doing more education on the distinction between institutional speech and personal speech; this may be a good opportunity to have that conversation.”

She offered no evidence that anyone was confused that a post about a student’s independent work was speaking on behalf of the school, nor any explanation of how quotes and other third-party material could be legally or logically viewed as an official statement. Indeed, later comments from Russo and Jacobs make it clear that the real problem was disagreement with the content of the post. 

Censoring one journalist, praising another

After reading the internal emails, I contacted the key players with a bunch of questions. Does Georgia Tech have any current financial relationships with the City, the Atlanta Police Department or the Atlanta Police Foundation, as it has in the past? What are the legal grounds for claiming that anything on a Georgia Tech website is official school/state speech? Did any of them at any point raise concerns about the constitutional and academic-freedom rights of faculty, staff and students? 

Meeks called me to say that no one would be answering, including him, though he threw out a couple more speculative legal claims. Georgia Tech could be on the hook for libelous speech on its websites, he said, but acknowledged there was no such claim about Ip’s post. He cited the widely misunderstood legal concept of “shouting fire in a crowded theater” – a shorthand for speech that creates an imminent danger. He didn’t laugh like I did when I pointed out that this was more like shouting “Cop City” in a crowded theater.

It’s certainly reasonable for schools to have policies on vetting materials for publication and for avoiding confusion between individual and institutional speech. (Probably not coincidentally, some of those concerns are elements of a University of Georgia academic freedom policy update that was circulating for review –including among these officials – several days before this incident.) It’s not at all reasonable for such policies to become an excuse for viewpoint-based discrimination, academically dishonest misdirection, and the other unpleasantries that happened in this case. Marketing departments certainly should not be deciding academic and journalistic standards. And the context of sheer establishment pressure against training center dissent is a factor that should not be ignored and must be opposed.

Six days later, Georgia Tech honored CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour with the annual Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage. In what I must assume – based on the commentary from Meeks, Russo and others – is the official statement of Georgia Tech and the state of Georgia, the school website quoted her and President Ángel Cabrera about the benefits of controversial journalism.

“We’re on a university campus, and around campuses across the United States there has been a tendency toward less openness and more canceled culture,” the website press release quotes Amanpour as saying during her visit. “People are shying away or not wanting to hear things that they don’t agree with. I think that’s a shame. And I think that’s a problem in terms of where else you’re going to get this opportunity. When else in your life are you going to get the opportunity to hear a whole range of things that you may or may not agree with?”

“Christiane refuses to be neutral in the face of horror because, I’m quoting you now, Christiane, ‘When you’re neutral, you become an accessory,’” said Cabrera on the website.

Perhaps the job of Georgia Tech PR people should be promoting the work of their better students, not plotting to censor it. Perhaps they should laud the bravery of student journalists as well as those who offer the reflected glory of TV shows.

Meanwhile, Ip walked across the stage at Bobby Dodd Stadium earlier this month and got his diploma. “As a proud Georgia Tech graduate,” he said, “I will continue applying what I’ve learned in college to do accurate, in-depth, nuanced environmental justice reporting at The Xylom, MIT and beyond.”