Law school gagging speech

December 19, 2010

A Law student at Syracuse University is facing possible expulsion for "harassment," but he doesn’t know who his accusers are or even why he’s in trouble.

The source of all the trouble is a fake news blog called SUCOLitis. It’s like The Onion, but it focuses on making fun of life in law school. In one post, the "Faculty Committee on Aesthetic Standards" names the Class of 2013 "Most Attractive in History." In another, a beer bong is elected class president.

Harassment? Far from it. Very far, under any meaningful definition.

Humor, parody and satire are huge parts of our culture, and our society benefits from a wide range of social criticism, even when it’s anonymous.

That’s right: Nobody has taken responsibility for the anonymous blog. But one student, Len Audaer, appears to be facing prosecution anyway.

Law professor Gregory Germain (the "prosecutor" of this case in the school’s judicial system) began investigating Len two months ago, and has kept Len completely in the dark for the whole two months. Who are the accusers? Which blog post was harassing? Len doesn’t know. How could he even start to defend himself?

Knowing that universities can’t defend in public what they try to do in private, Len sought to draw attention to these abuses. But Germain is now seeking a gag order that would severely hurt Len’s efforts to publicize his situation. Germain wants to require any journalist reporting on the case to sign away the right to publish any case document unless the document is published whole. No excerpts, no quotations.

Germain knows full well that this would essentially prevent Audaer from appealing to the court of public opinion, leaving him no choice but to silently accept the findings of a campus judiciary that seems determined to get him.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) has stepped in to protect Len’s rights. While Syracuse is a private university not bound by the First Amendment, it promises students "the right to express themselves freely on any subject." It also promises students "the right to fundamental fairness."

It’s fundamentally unfair to threaten a student with expulsion for his protected speech for months while refusing to give him any of the evidence or name his accusers. We’ve asked Syracuse’s chancellor, Nancy Cantor, to honor Syracuse’s promises — but thus far she has done nothing.

Syracuse is teaching the next generation of lawyers that the right not to be offended trumps the rights of free speech and due process. Such bad lessons about fair procedure and free speech undermine some of the most important values in our democracy.

Adam Kissel is VP of programs at the Foun dation for Individual Rights in Education.

Schools: Syracuse University Cases: Syracuse University: Disciplinary Investigations of Satirical Law School Blog