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UCSB will not publish thesis due to “˜disacknowledgment’

By Harrison Liddiard

April 18, 2002 9:00 p.m.

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By Crystal Betz
Daily Bruin Contributor

Christopher Brown’s academic advisors had no problem
accepting the scientific merit of his 1999 master’s thesis on
the growth of abalone shells.

But what UC Santa Barbara officials did have a problem with was
Brown’s two-page “disacknowledgment” section,
prefacing his thesis, which attacked the university’s faculty
and staff. For that, the university has refused to publish his work
and is now in the middle of a lawsuit.

Whether Brown was unfairly censored or whether it is the
UC’s right to treat academic material in a way they see fit
is being debated by three judges in the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of
Appeals in Pasadena.

Oral arguments were heard April 9. A decision is not expected
for at least three to six months, said Penelope Glass,
Brown’s attorney.

Brown is suing to get his thesis published in the Davidson
Library at UCSB, where all master’s theses are available for
the public, and is seeking unspecified monetary damages. He cites
his First Amendment right to free expression.

“I’m optimistic about our chances of
prevailing,” Brown said.

The lawsuit specifically targets Charles Li, dean of the
graduate division; UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang; three professors on
the thesis committee; and Sarah Pritchard, director of Davidson
Library.

Chris Patti of the UC General Counsel, who is representing all
six defendants, said the case is not just about Brown’s
rights, but also about the First Amendment rights of the
professors, who “have the constitutional right to not be
attached to something they do not agree with.”

While the acknowledgement section of a thesis is commonly used
by students to thank professors, family or any individual who
helped them during the process of completing their thesis, Brown
chose to create a disacknowledgment section. In it, he paid harsh
criticism to UC officials, whom he called a “hindrance”
during his graduate career.

UCSB officials did not grant Brown his degree for almost a year.
Even after they issued him a degree, they refused to put his thesis
in the school’s library because of his blunt insults of staff
and faculty in his disacknowledgment.

Li said the case encompasses three issues.

The first, that “Mr. Brown does have a right to freedom of
expression and freedom to publish anything,” but there is
also the second issue “that faculty has freedom in agreeing
or not agreeing to endorse anything someone else says,” Li
said.

In addition, Li points out that when a thesis is put in the
library, it is available to the public.

“The library has a right to refuse or not refuse to
publish something,” he said.

In June 1999, Brown turned in his thesis, titled “The
Morphology of Calcium Carbonates: Factors Affecting Crystal
Growth,” where, according to the lawsuit, it was then
confirmed by his academic panel that he had fulfilled all
requirements to receive his degree.

A few weeks later, Brown received a letter from Associate Dean
of Students Joseph Navarro that “the thesis could not be
accepted unless the disacknowledgment section was removed”
and unless Brown “apologized to each person mentioned in the
section,” according to the factual information in the
lawsuit.

Brown’s original disacknowledgment section was speckled
with profanity. After being asked by his professors to remove the
offending four-letter words, Brown modified the language but not
the harshness of his opinions.

“I’d rather stick a hot stick in my eye than deal
with your bureaucratic nonsense,” he wrote in the second
draft. This is just one of the many comments directed toward Li and
the staff of the UCSB graduate division.

His comments range from criticizing the “poor
attitudes” and “incompetence” of library
management to calling former California governor Pete Wilson
“a supreme government jerk,” noting how he raised
student fees in the early 1990s.

Brown even goes so far as to criticize the broad field of
science, stating that it has rendered “those in your pursuit
lifeless, unfeeling zombies.”

The UCSB Graduate Handbook, does not explicitly state what can
or cannot be said in the acknowledgment section of a thesis, nor
are there any rules allowing a degree to be withheld due to
statements presented in an acknowledgment section.

However, “a thesis must be presented in its entirety for
approval, including acknowledgments,” Li said.

“Mr. Brown thinks his right to express his opinion should
make faculty give up their right to choose to endorse his
opinion,” Li said.

Brown added in his disacknowledgment after the technical part of
his thesis was approved.

“We have the right not to approve it,” Li said.

Patti said students should follow the “typical standard
practice that applies to journal publications when writing
acknowledgments.”

“Faculty members can and should not approve his
thesis,” he said.

In late May 2000, UC officials mailed Brown his masters’
degree in materials engineering, but still refused to file his
thesis in the library.

Brown said the decision to grant him his degree came
“conveniently” at the same time a reporter from
ABC’s “World News Tonight” contacted UCSB.

There was no connection between the two events, and the decision
to award Brown his degree had nothing to do with being contacted by
a network news reporter, Li said. His degree was awarded as soon as
his appeal process with the University was finished, Li said.

Shortly after receiving his degree, Brown filed a civil rights
lawsuit against the UC in June 2000, claiming the defendants
violated his First Amendment rights by not publishing the thesis in
the library.

Anyone can still obtain a copy of his thesis through public
requests if they pay for it, Li said. This process is legally
equivalent to publishing, in Li’s view.

A U.S. District Court in Los Angeles ruled in favor of the UC on
April 30, 2001 for the primary reason of “qualified
immunity.”

This means that “even if the university officials violated
Mr. Brown’s rights, they did not know or understand they were
doing so,” Glass said.

A judgment of “qualified immunity” could happen
again in the Court of Appeals, Glass said, though she doubts it
will.

“I believe the law is clearly established in this area; UC
officials should have known these rules,” she said.

Brown has found support for his case from three organizations,
including the UCLA Graduate Students Association. 

“Chris Brown has the right to his work, and the University
should not censor this work. The UCLA GSA did not endorse what
Chris Brown may have said in his section in question, but we do
endorse his right to say it,” GSA President Charles Harless
said in a statement.

In response to the case’s potential impact at UCLA,
Harless stated that the case “will hopefully reassert that a
dissertation is the sole work of a graduate student and he/she has
the rights associated with that.”

But as USCB’s chancellor points out, the case is about
faculty’s rights as well.

“As chancellor, I am committed to supporting the rights of
students on our campus,” he said in a statement.

“The student was free to speak his mind, as are all
students. … At the same time, faculty members have the right and
the responsibility to evaluate student academic work, and to decide
what is appropriate to include in an academic paper.”

Brown, who is now a director of engineering for a technical
start-up company in the Bay Area, stated on his Web site that his
suit is more than just about getting his thesis put into the
library.

It is about the “rights of students to express their views
without intimidation, to have academic evaluations based on
academic criteria and the rights of university library patrons to
access controversial materials,” Brown said.

To view Brown’s Web site with information about the case,
visit www.disacknowledged.org

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