A public university in North Carolina is seeking to clarify the First Amendment rights of its students after an assistant professor emailed undergraduate chemistry majors, telling them they couldn't thank God during their departmental graduation ceremony.
The email, obtained by the website Campus Reform, was written by Eli Hvastkovs, an assistant professor of chemistry at East Carolina University, dated May 1. The email provides guidelines for the personal statements of students attending the department's graduation ceremony.
The first of three guidelines offered to students reads: "You can't thank God. I'm sorry about this – and I don't want to have to outline the reasons why."
Hvastkovs then followed up in an interview with Campus Reform, saying he banned reference to God because the graduation "[is] not a religious ceremony […] it's purely educational."
The assistant professor added that preventing God from being referenced in graduation ceremonies was not a school-wide policy. "It's more of a departmental thing, we have a diverse student body."
Officials at the public university, located in Greenville, N.C., have been quick to dismiss Hvastkovs' email, saying the assistant professor was wrong in denying students their First Amendment rights to free speech and religious expression.
According to the local WCTI-12, East Carolina University Provost Marilyn Sheerer issued a statement to chemistry majors late last week, urging them to "disregard" the religious guideline set forth by Hvastkovs.
"These statements can be your personal expressions and as such the University will only limit these expressions, as permitted by applicable First Amendment law," Sheerer said in part. "[…] 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. "
The university later issued a statement clarifying the incident, saying it had educated its deans and department chairs on free speech guidelines for students. "We believe by allowing the students to submit a personal statement for reading during a departmental graduation ceremony, the university creates a forum for student expression."