Gregory Germain Isn’t the Only One at Syracuse Who Disdains Free Speech

By February 15, 2012

Remember Syracuse University College of Law (SUCOL) "independent prosecutor" Gregory Germain, who complained at a law student meeting last year that "I think there are a lot of people who have a sense of entitlement to free speech"? He’s at it again, this time in Syracuse’s student newspaper, The Daily Orange, and he’s not the only one disdainful of free speech rights.

Journalist Debbie Truong’s article, "A blurry line: Following criticism, faculty struggle to distinguish between free speech, harassment," shows that Syracuse has quite a long way to go just to define basic terms. 

For example, take harassment in the educational context. The Supreme Court has carefully defined student-on-student hostile environment harassment in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629, 652 (1999): in order for student behavior to be actionable harassment, it must be conduct that is (1) unwelcome; (2) discriminatory; (3) on the basis of gender or another protected status, like race; (4) directed at an individual; and (5) "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and … [that] so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities." The Davis standard maximally protects student expression while meeting universities’ obligations under harassment law. 

Yet, Germain persists to this day in claiming that the satirical SUCOLitis blog, which told obviously fake stories about life in law school (and explicitly said they were fake), "constituted harassment." (You can read the blog for yourself here.) The satirical blog came nowhere near meeting the Davis standard, so to honor Syracuse’s stated promises of free speech, the law school should have taken no disciplinary action. There was nothing to investigate. Instead, Germain’s prosecutorial mistakes and contempt for the rights of one student allegedly involved with the blog eventually led FIRE to name Syracuse as one of the worst universities in the nation for free speech in a feature on The Huffington Post. Soon after, the university dropped all the charges against the student, Len Audaer. 

This year, in the wake of a second high-profile violation of Syracuse’s binding promises of free speech, Germain is joined by Vice Chancellor and Provost Eric Spina in disdaining students’ free speech rights. In this year’s case, Syracuse’s School of Education effectively expelled graduate student Matthew Werenczak after he complained  on Facebook about a racially charged comment made in his presence by a community leader that student teachers were coming from Syracuse rather than historically black colleges.

Spina defended both programs’ outrageous disciplinary actions in Truong’s article:

Some students might identify certain circumstances that a student is being silenced or their right to free speech or free expression is being denied, when in fact, there’s been a determination by a program … that there is a situation that needs to be addressed.

The message here is that free speech doesn’t matter if the school wants to "address" something controversial that a student has said. It is sad that Spina has demonstrated so little concern (if any) for Syracuse’s own promises. I wonder if he’s ever met a speech restriction he didn’t like.

In addition, FIRE posted all of the relevant documents online in each case so that readers could judge for themselves. Yet, according to Truong, Spina said that FIRE "did not possess all the facts." OK, Mr. Spina, please name one fact that would have justified expelling Matthew Werenczak and requiring him to undergo a special course of diversity training and counseling for "anger management" just to earn a chance of readmission.

Spina can’t, of course. Rather, he charges ominously (and vacuously) that "FIRE has, like many organizations, an agenda." Granted, we do have an agenda to protect First Amendment rights and due process on campus. This is hardly secretive or ominous, though. I suppose, to Spina, those who promoted the Bill of Rights had an equally disreputable "agenda."

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, Spina and Germain are not alone. Douglas Biklen, dean of the School of Education (SOE), also sent readers down the wrong path when he suggested to Truong that the expulsion case was merely a "delayed replacement." At some point soon, FIRE is going to ask SOE’s accreditor, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), how it likes holding the bag for SOE’s defense of its unconscionable treatment of a student as merely the "standard process."

If Syracuse won’t own up to its severe mistakes or at least honor its own free speech promises going forward, FIRE will continue to get the word out to prospective students and faculty members that Syracuse University is one of the worst schools for free speech in the United States. Faculty members and students on campus, at least, are starting to pay attention.

Schools: Syracuse University Cases: Syracuse University: Education Student Expelled over Facebook Comments Syracuse University: Disciplinary Investigations of Satirical Law School Blog