Al Corum, John Gresham speak on historic Free Speech claim against Appalachian State

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Alvin Corum (L) and John Gresham (R)

Dr. Alvis Corum was a longtime tenured faculty member and the Dean of Learning Resources at Appalachian State University when he learned of a plan to relocate and split up the Appalachian Collection, a seminal collection of books, reports, music, and artifacts of the historic culture of the Southern Appalachian Region. Dr. Corum, who was the administrator responsible for overseeing the Appalachian Collection, opposed breaking up the materials and advocating for maintaining the integrity of the collection in a meeting with other senior administrators and university officials. One day after proposing his alternative plan for the collection, Dr. Corum was removed from his deanship and stripped of his administrative duties.

Dr. Corum filed a grievance with the University, alleging he was being retaliated against for exercising his rights to free speech. His demotion was upheld by the University. Despite this setback, Dr. Corum was determined to seek justice and, with the help, advice and assistance of John Gresham, a dedicated civil rights lawyer, filed suit against Appalachian State University, the UNC system, and several top officials.

Charles Daye, Mark Dorosin and Elizabeth Haddix
with Al Corum and John Gresham

Corum v. University of North Carolina included claims brought directly under the North Carolina Constitution. The university argued that the doctrine of sovereign immunity absolutely prohibited such lawsuits. In 1992, the North Carolina Supreme Court disagreed, and in a landmark civil rights ruling recognizing the right to bring claims directly under the state constitution, wrote:

The civil rights guaranteed by the Declaration of Rights in Article I of our Constitution are individual and personal rights entitled to protection against state action . . . . The fundamental purpose for [the] adoption [of the Declaration of Rights] was to provide citizens with protection from the State's encroachment upon these rights. Encroachment by the State is, of course, accomplished by the acts of individuals who are clothed with the authority of the State. The very purpose of the Declaration of Rights is to ensure that the violation of these rights is never permitted by anyone who might be invested under the Constitution with the powers of the State.

... in determining the rights of citizens under the Declaration of Rights of our Constitution, it is the judiciary's responsibility to guard and protect those rights. The doctrine of sovereign immunity cannot stand as a barrier to North Carolina citizens who seek to remedy violations of their rights guaranteed by the Declaration of Rights. It would indeed be a fanciful gesture to say on the one hand that citizens have constitutional individual civil rights that are protected from encroachment actions by the State, while on the other hand saying that individuals whose constitutional rights have been violated by the State cannot sue because of the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

It is also to be noted that individual rights protected under the Declaration of Rights from violation by the State are constitutional rights. Such constitutional rights are a part of the supreme law of the State. On the other hand, the doctrine of sovereign immunity is not a constitutional right; it is a common law theory or defense established by this Court . . . . Thus, when there is a clash between these constitutional rights and sovereign immunity, the constitutional rights must prevail. Corum v. University of North Carolina, 330 N.C. 761 (1992).

The long struggle of Dr. Corum and John Gresham changed civil rights law in our state and is a powerful testament to the impact that those dedicated to the struggle for justice can make. The Center recently hosted these two civil rights pioneers for a discussion of the challenges, the strategies and their experience working together on this groundbreaking case.

Dr. Corum has also recently written a book about his experience, "Fired with Enthusiasm: Testing Freedom of Speech in the University of North Carolina System."

Race & The Law: Corum v. University of North Carolina from UNC School of Law on Vimeo.

Posted by Mark Dorosin on Fri. January 4, 2013 9:59 AM
Categories: Community Leaders, First Amendment, Race and the Law Series
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