Ex-UC Student Cites Censorship 'Disacknowledgements' Section at Center of Thesis Debate

Pasadena Star News
April 10, 2002
By Howard Breuer
Staff Writer

PASADENA -- University of California faculty can fail or refuse to graduate a student if they disagree with his views, a UC attorney told an incredulous Ninth Circuit panel Tuesday.

Christopher M. Patti, counsel to the UC Regents, made the remarks defending against Pasadena native Christopher Brown, who added a "disacknowledgements" section to his thesis that criticized UC officials. Students commonly put a
list of acknowledgments at the beginning of theses to thank professors and others who helped them along the way.

"That's an odd idea of the role of a professor in a university," responded Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who sat with judges Warren Ferguson and Susan Graber. "You have a very broad view of the
First Amendment as it applies to professors."

Brown's attorney, Paul L. Hoffman, said he was "astonished" by Patti's remarks.

"Government cannot allow praise for public officials and say you can't include complaints," Hoffman argued.

Brown, a graduate of Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada Flintridge, has essentially challenged the courts to decide where the line is drawn between a student's free-speech rights and, as Graber put it, a professor's "curricular control."

Patti insisted the case is also about the First Amendment rights of professors and thesis committee members not to support or be associated with Brown's views.

The "disacknowledgements" section criticizes every "degenerate" bureaucrat Brown encountered during his years in the UC system, from the UC Santa Barbara library staff to former Gov. Pete Wilson.

It calls Graduate Division Dean Charles N. Li and his staff "fascists," and tells them, "I'd rather take a hot stick in the eye than deal with your bureaucratic nonsense."

Brown, 30, said the university's vigorous resistance underscores the accuracy of his "disacknowledgements," although he never imagined the case would reach the nation's second-highest court.

"It's finally come to light that the university's position is really exceptional," Brown said. "It's about (churning) out students to fit a mold."

The committee that approved Brown's thesis rejected it after seeing the criticisms.

After national media coverage of the case, UC officials mailed Brown his master's degree in materials engineering but refused to file his thesis in the university library.

Brown complains he's a victim of "viewpoint discrimination," and there's nothing in the UC rule books saying acknowledgments must be complimentary.

Patti conceded professors' standards are sometimes arbitrary and the university was willing to graduate Brown if he found a thesis committee to approve his work.

Judges noted contradictions in Patti's arguments.

"Part of the job of teaching a student how to write a professional paper is teaching them how to write acknowledgments," Patti said.

"But you don't have to write acknowledgments," Reinhardt protested. "Why don't you flunk people who don't write acknowledgments at all?"

Patti said the university has no restriction against criticizing people, "but in the acknowledgments section you're going to conform to the professional norms."

"But he could have found other professors ... who would have violated the professional standards?" Reinhardt asked.

Patti concluded university professors must be free to evaluate students without interference from the courts.

The judges must now decide whether a lower court was wrong to dismiss the case without a trial on Brown's censorship claims.

Brown -- who has Mario Savio's Sproul Hall speech on the home page of his Web site (www.disacknowledged.org) -- says he hopes the ordeal eventually compels UC professors to allow diverging viewpoints in academic papers. Savio led the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964 and 1965 in which students "sat in" on Sproul Plaza to protest rigid university policies against pamphleteers and other political activists on the UC Berkeley campus.

"The university, science and students benefit by not having students compelled to praise the university," Brown said. "No one wins in that scenario."

-- Howard Breuer can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4444, or by e-mail at
[email protected]