ECU Professor Explains Banning "Thanking God" Email

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An ECU professor who got in hot water after telling students not to thank God during a departmental graduation ceremony has explained why he did it.

Dr. Eli Hvastkovs sent out the email to his chemistry seniors a week ago. It was part of guidelines for a 35 word voluntary statement about what graduates were thankful for that will be read by someone else as they are recognized during departmental graduation.

The next day the university's provost reversed the decision, saying that religious references of any type will not be restricted.

In an email, Hvastkovs explained he didn't mean to limit the student's free speech, and he is not an atheist. The assistant professor says he made the restriction after receiving some feedback from those who were actually reading the remarks that they "were not comfortable thanking a God(s) on behalf of the students."

Hvastkovs says he worded the original email poorly, and then did a poor job explaining himself to the original reporter who broke the story.

"I feel terrible that there are ECU alumni that are emailing me and commenting on the message boards bad things about me - and I wanted to say that I am a regular good person, who just sent a poorly worded, poorly thought out email. I am sorry," said Hvastkov in his explanation.


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East Carolina University says it has reversed an assistant professor's decision not to allow graduating students to mention God in voluntary departmental graduation statements.

Dr. Eli Hvastkovs, an assistant professor in the chemistry department, sent an email to his students on Thursday saying they could not thank God in those statements. "You can't thank God. I'm sorry about this - and I don't want to have to outline the reasons why," said Hvastkovs in the email.

That decision was quickly reversed by Provost Marilyn Sheerer. She emailed students on Friday to disregard Hvastkovs's email and that religious references of any type will not be restricted.

"I have confirmed with the Chair of the Department of Chemistry that students may submit personal statements, up to 35 words, to be read during the departmental ceremony. These statements can be your personal expressions and as such the University will only limit these expressions, as permitted by applicable First Amendment law," said Sheerer's email.

ECU says Hvastkovs's email was not authorized by the university, and the provost says she regrets that his email went out.

The university says voluntary personal statements read as students are being recognized during departmental ceremonies has been a tradition for some majors at ECU.


Hvastkovs's email

From: "Hvastkovs, Eli"
Date: May 1, 2014 at 8:00:59 PM EDT
To: Chemistry Majors
Subject: Graduation Statement
Hi everyone. Just a reminder to everyone (undergraduate majors) that if you are planning on being at the graduation ceremony, you can provide me with a personal statement that thanks someone or tells us your future plans. I've had some submissions that needed to be edited. so here are some guidelines:

1. You can't thank God. I'm sorry about this – and I don't want to have to outline the reasons why.
2. Provide me something written in the 3rd person. Think that someone will read this, it won't be you.
3. Keep it brief. I didn't give you a real word limit, but at max think 35 words. We do have time to read these but it can't be a paragraph (we've had some).
4. Keep it family friendly, and not gross. (Had one that was).
Thanks – I hope everyone understands these guidelines.

E

Eli Hvastkovs, PhD.
Asst. Professor
Dept. of Chemistry
East Carolina University


Provosts' email

From: "Sheerer, Marilyn"
Date: Fri, 2 May 2014 14:45:58 -0400
To: Chemistry Majors
Cc: Mary Schulken
Subject: Graduation Statement

Please disregard Dr. Hvastkovs’s previous email regarding your departmental graduation statement he sent to you on May 1, 2014 at 8:00:59 PM EDT. I have confirmed with the Chair of the Department of Chemistry that students may submit personal statements, up to 35 words, to be read during the departmental ceremony. These statements can be your personal expressions and as such the University will only limit these expressions, as permitted by applicable First Amendment law.

For your information, statement content may only be restricted when

(1) the speech or actions of the speaker constitute a violation of North Carolina statutes governing hate crimes (which regulate acts that are intended to intimidate any person based on a protected class such as race, creed, gender etc.); or

(2) the speech is seriously disruptive to the campus (interrupting classes or exams, inciting a riot for instance); or

(3) the speech has failed to comply with the University's content neutral processes (you failed to submit it on time or you exceed the 35 word limit).

Religious references of any type will not be restricted. I regret that, without approval from the appropriate University officials, any other limitations were communicated to you. Please submit these statements to Dr. Hvastkovs at hvastkovse@ecu.edu by Wednesday, May 7, 2014 at 5:00 pm so that the statements may be included in the ceremony scheduled for May 9, 2014.

Thank you.
Marilyn Sheerer
Provost and
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affair


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