Georgia Tech emails about ‘Cop City’ post censorship read like an unfunny sitcom

by Lindsey Francy May 29, 2023 News
Georgia Tech emails about ‘Cop City’ post censorship read like an unfunny sitcom
Skip to content

A conceptual illustration of tree plantings at the main buildings of the proposed public safety training center. (Image by Atlanta Police Foundation.)

Georgia Tech censoring a student journalist's first-person account of critical reporting on Atlanta's controversial public safety training center was due to concern about the term "Cop City"

The emails were written like a sitcom about bureaucrats and butt-covering bosses messing up the work of college staff. While the school was planning to honor a famous and powerful CNN journalist with a $100,000 prize for social courage, some of the officious officials were scrambling to find a way to not look like censorship.

The joke is on everyone at Georgia Tech and the public that is served by the school. The path for agents of the state to become censors is known as "silliness". The emails show an intent to suppress controversy and deceive the public, which should heighten concern about the politicization of state schools and the establishment's pattern of attacking any dissent about the training center.

Alex Ip, founder and editor-in-chief of The Xylom.

Alex Ip is an environmental engineering undergrad who created an independent news site called The Xylom as an outgrowth of his classwork. He is going to the MIT as a graduate student in science writing because of his Xylom work. He was invited to submit a post about his reporting on the training center by "Serve-Learn-Sustain", a campus-wide program where students get practical experience in helping to "create sustainable communities."

Ip's commentary was posted on a section of the SLS website and also was distributed in an SLS newsletter. The post described how his courses led to an interest in the training center controversy. He believes that an article he wrote about the project led to a press release that was scrubbed from the City website. He said that the deletion of the City's press release made him more motivated to cover "Cop City". The Defend the Atlanta Forest protested against the training center and came up with the term "Cop City".

Ip was told late that night that college public relations officials were not happy. The post was revised to make it clear that it was his opinion. They had a new language that removed the phrase "Cop City". They wanted to remove the direct link to the original article. SLS needs to remove the entire post.

Linking directly to the post, with its inflammatory title, and using the term ‘Cop City’ in the overview is very concerning.

Louise M. Russo, interim vice president of Institute Communications and assistant vice president of Strategic Marketing, Georgia Tech

Ip agreed and immediately publicized the changes on social media, where many people decried them as academic censorship.

Georgia Tech gave me explanations that I didn't understand. The assistant vice president of external communications claims that a law made the Georgia Tech website the official voice of the school and the state. There is a new IT policy that reviews and restricts the posting of third party content. Ip never answered the questions of how he violated the rules and how those rules can possibly be overruled by the U.S. and Georgia constitution.

I obtained hundreds of internal emails from the officials in order to see what they were saying to each other. They tell a classic story of how a censorship machine starts running and why Georgia Tech needs to pull out the plug now before a civil rights lawsuit does it for them. PR and marketing people assume dictatorial powers under a bureaucratic policy, a rogue committee of censors kill content based on speculative problems, and staff members are enlisted as spies to rat out suspicious publications.

The emails show that the IT policy and notion of any website being an official school voice were indeed cited, but as a sledgehammer against content officials, they had to go, especially the term "Cop City" At least 15 different Georgia Tech officials and staff members, many of them brainstorming ways to kill or alter the post as late as 4:55 a.m., panicked and came up with a plan to kill or alter the post.

The ad-hoc ideas included killing the post and having an access denied page, as well as tricking readers into going to a different interview with Ip posted on the site years before. SLS staff wanted Ip to be involved and that they risked a censorship controversy. It was not possible for the officials to kill the post because of Ip's publicizing.

The lead in suppressing the post was taken by Louise M. A number of high-ranking Georgia Tech officials were involved. Some of the officials are in a committee or working group for the IT policy, which became one of the mechanisms used to censor the internet.

Ip was invited by Ruthie C. Yow to write a post about his article. She said that they would love to share it. Yow called the post "gorgeous" after it was submitted.

SLS published Ip's post in its email newsletter. The trouble appears to have started when the newsletter was forwarded without comment to the vice provost. Jacobs forwarded the newsletter to Russo with the comment, "Just a heads up for situational awareness in case you haven't seen it."

A pattern of viewing Ip's post through her particular lens was started by a career marketing and brand management executive. She said that the student was welcome to draft their own content but that it was a reflection of the institute and that she was concerned.

An hour later, she said that she had spoken to Jacobs and Gosden. Kathleen and I agree that this content should be removed from the site as anything on a Georgia Tech-hosted website is considered speaking on behalf of the institute.

She didn't offer any evidence that anyone was confused that a post about a student's independent work was speaking on behalf of the school. The real problem was the disagreement with the content of the post.

An excerpt of an April 18 email from Georgia Tech official Louise M. Russo about Ip’s post.

The title and use of the term "Cop City" in the overview is very concerning.

The phrase 'Cop City' in and of itself is a concern for the communication's department.

The plan to kill the post was held back by the fact that it had already been publicized. The vice president for Institute Relations needed a solution that didn't have it going to an access denied page. A lower-level communications staffer jumped the gun and pulled the post down in haste.

The solution was to change the newsletter link to an old interview with Ip from a controversial article to a bland introduction and a link to the general Xylom site.

The institute is separated from the editorial nature of the content in that way.

It gives me pause to link to the site at all, but, in this case, it is an appropriate compromise.

The SLS director and her staff were working with a mix of exasperation and confusion on a revision of the original post which they believed to be the solution. He insisted on Ip's knowledge and input in order to push back on the PR officials' moves. She suggested a new headline, "Georgia Tech student publishes article on cop city." She wanted to send it to Ip as she didn't want to change it without his permission.

… I mentioned the option of running something on ‘the other side,’ but as expected that didn’t go over at all.

Jennifer Hirsch, director, Georgia Tech Serve-Learn-Sustain

The idea of contacting Ip was embraced by many officials. The communications department wanted to change the post, she told him. The only other option is to remove the post from the website.

The upper level officials did not agree with the new wording. The plan was still being pushed to misdirect readers. SLS staff didn't understand the misdirection idea and continued to believe they were just editing a post.

I'm not sure what to think. Can't believe they want a note on the old post I don't know how we are supposed to run it.

There is a link to the actual article in the article. It doesn't make sense. The goal was to link to his article.

The officials relented somewhat on April 18 and allowed a heavily edited version of the post to remain, including a link to the Xylom article that appears to have been restored some hours later. In emails to her staff, she described a discussion about the topic of content.

An excerpt from an April 18 email from SLS Director Jennifer Hirsch about the controversy over Ip’s post.

The option of running something on the other side didn't go over well. It is not a side thing as Ip does not insist on transparency from the City.

It makes no sense for the piece to be linked to the generic Xylom site instead of the article, according to the authors. She wrote that she told him that they would take it down if that was the only option.

It was a big issue. The comedy came late on April 18 when I sent an email to Hirsch about the situation. She forwarded my email to the person who showed that PR people had gone so far down the rabbit hole.

It seemed he was okay with the changes.

He was ok with them since he only had one choice.

The key players were contacted after reading the internal emails. Does Georgia Tech have any current financial relationships with the Atlanta Police Department or the Atlanta Police Foundation? Is it legal to claim that anything on a Georgia Tech website is official school speech? Did any of them raise concerns about their academic freedom?

He threw out a couple more speculative legal claims after I told him that no one would be answering. He said that Georgia Tech could be on the hook for libelous speech on its websites. He pointed to the legal concept of "shouting fire in a crowded theater", which is a shorthand for speech that creates an imminent danger. When I pointed out that this was more like shouting in a crowded theater, he didn't laugh like I did.

It is reasonable for schools to have policies on vetting materials for publication. Some of the concerns are related to a University of Georgia academic freedom policy update that was circulating for review several days before this incident. It is not reasonable for such policies to be used as an excuse for discrimination, dishonest misdirection, and other unpleasantries. Academic and journalistic standards shouldn't be decided by marketing departments. The context of establishment pressure against training center dissent should not be ignored.

CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour was honored by Georgia Tech with a prize for social courage. I assume that the official statement of Georgia Tech and the state of Georgia is based on the commentary from the commentators.

According to a website press release, Amanpour said that there has been a tendency to less openness and more canceled culture on US campuses. People are not willing to listen to things that they don't agree with. I don't think that's a good thing. In terms of where else you will get this opportunity, that is a problem. You will get the chance to hear a lot of things that you may or may not agree with.

"Christiane refuses to be neutral in the face of horror because, I'm quoting you now, Christiane, 'When you're neutral, you become an accessory,'"

Maybe the job of Georgia Tech PR people is to promote the work of their students, not to censor it. They should praise the bravery of student journalists as well as those who work on TV shows.

Ip walked across the stage at the stadium to get his degree. He said that he will apply what he has learned in college to do accurate, in-depth, nuanced environmental justice reporting.