Contempt of Court or Academic Freedom? The Question Sends a Stubborn Georgia Professor to Jail

updated 09/29/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1980 01:00AM

Hard cases make bad law, as the old legal axiom goes—and the case of Prof. James Dinnan is one of the thorniest in recent memory. When the fall semester opened at the University of Georgia in Athens this month, Dinnan, 50, a member of the Education Department, was not in his usual classroom. Instead, he was washing dishes at the federal prison in Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Dinnan was imprisoned for contempt of court for refusing to give information in a campus lawsuit; what he sees as a battle over academic freedom has evolved into a bitter personal confrontation between him and a federal judge. Dinnan has vowed to remain in prison as long as is necessary to make his point: "We have a judicial system that's not accountable to anyone," he says. Federal District Judge Wilbur Owens is just as determined. "We can't take him out and whip him like we do our children," the judge declared from the bench. "I think sometimes it might be appropriate to use such punitive measures."

The conflict began last year, when Dr. Maija Blaubergs, 33, an assistant professor of educational psychology, was denied tenure at the university. Dinnan sat on the tenure review committee, which voted against her 6-3 in a secret ballot, reportedly because she had not done enough "high-quality research." Blaubergs filed suit charging sex discrimination, and her lawyer asked the committee members to tell how they voted. Blaubergs argued that the information was essential to prove she had been treated unfairly. Five committee members answered; Dinnan refused, and the other three haven't been asked yet. "This is the first time a court has attempted to get inside a university committee," Dinnan says. "If they get their way, no college in the country will be immune from government interference. It's very, very dangerous."

Judge Owens disagreed. A stern jurist, he attracted public attention in 1976 by threatening to sentence Scooter Herring, a former road manager for the Allman Brothers Band, to 75 years for buying cocaine. (Herring eventually got only 30 months.) The judge also once told a black welfare mother that he regretted not having the authority to order her sterilized. In the Dinnan case, Owens sentenced the professor to a $100-a-day fine from June 3 on. Dinnan paid the first day. The next day former Secretary of State Dean Rusk—now a Georgia law professor—gave the court the $100. Over the next four weeks 28 other colleagues followed Rusk's lead until, on July 3, Owens sent Dinnan to prison for 90 days. Dinnan could free himself at any time, the judge told him, by revealing his vote.

Dinnan, ironically, has now become the major issue in the case. Blaubergs left the Georgia faculty last spring, but has remained on campus as a first-year law student. Dinnan became something of a local hero when he surrendered to a federal marshal in July wearing his academic robe, arguing, "It's not me they are sentencing, it is the University of Georgia." The university has kept Dinnan on the payroll at about $25,000 a year; his colleagues are teaching his classes until he returns. Meanwhile, his defiance has drawn hundreds of letters of support. "The most irate are from housewives and blue-collar workers," he says. "They are outraged." In an unusual move, Judge Owens wrote to local newspapers to explain his action. "If citizens or judges disagree with the law," he argued, "it is appropriate to complain to Congress—but not to refuse to abide by the law."

On October 1 Dinnan is scheduled to be released. Meanwhile, his case is being reviewed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. If Dinnan loses, he could go back to jail. That prospect naturally worries him, his wife, Louise, and their five children. "I can't believe this could happen in this country," a grim Louise Dinnan says.

Even in a minimum-security prison like Eglin (whose 400 inmates include former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel), Dinnan finds life barely tolerable. Still, he has managed to teach a course on Hemingway in prison and finish writing a book on literacy. Louise says that her husband has lost 37 pounds; at 6'1", he usually weighs 257. Their son Thomas has virtually abandoned his construction business to work on his father's case, and Mrs. Dinnan even drove the 170 miles to Plains to talk to Jimmy Carter after church service one Sunday in July. "Pray for my husband," she asked the President, who promised to forward documents she sent him on the case to the Justice Department. Whatever happens, Dinnan swears he will not change his mind. "My wife was here last week," he smiles. "She said, 'Come on, are you ever going to tell me how you voted?' and I whispered in her ear, 'Maybe.' "

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