A Hickory, North Carolina, college student was pulled out of his classroom last week and banned from campus after he complained on Facebook about his school’s aggressive marketing of a debit card company to its students. After officials at Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) punished him for a satirical Facebook post deemed “contrary to the best interest of the CVCC community,” Marc Bechtol reached out to FIRE.
The incident began on June 20, 2011, when CVCC announced that “all curriculum students will receive a CVCC branded Debit Mastercard” in partnership with financial services company Higher One. The debit card doubles as a student ID, rendering its use essential. In order to activate his card this fall, Bechtol reportedly had to verify his Social Security number, date of birth, and student number. Bechtol began advocating against the partnership on June 23, concerned about CVCC’s sharing of students’ sensitive personal information with Higher One.
According to Bechtol, CVCC and Higher One aggressively marketed Higher One checking accounts through emails to students, advertising that they would get their tuition refunds and Pell Grants faster if they opened Higher One accounts; a September 19 email reportedly had the subject line, “Want your refund? Activate your CVCC Onecard today” in all capital letters. After Bechtol activated his card on September 27, he reportedly received a marketing phone call on September 28 from Orchard Bank, a credit card company.
Bechtol criticized CVCC’s partnership with Higher One on the school’s Facebook page. On September 28, he also posted: “Did anyone else get a bunch of credit card spam in their CVCC inbox today? So, did CVCC sell our names to banks, or did Higher One? I think we should register CVCC’s address with every porn site known to man. Anyone know any good viruses to send them?” He immediately added a second comment, “OK, maybe that would be a slight overreaction.”
A week later, on October 4, as Bechtol waited for his second class of the day to begin, he was pulled out of his classroom by CVCC Executive Officer of Student Services Cynthia L. Coulter and told that he could not return. On October 5, Coulter sent him a disciplinary letter stating that Bechtol’s first Facebook comment was “disturbing,” “indicates possible malicious action against the college,” and violated CVCC’s policy against “[c]ommission of any other offense which, in the opinion of the administration or faculty, may be contrary to the best interest of the CVCC community.” Bechtol was suspended without a hearing and was banned from campus for two semesters. He attended an appeal hearing on October 7.
“Catawba Valley Community College violated the First Amendment by responding to obviously hyperbolic criticism with swift and severe punishment,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff in a press release. “Marc Bechtol must be allowed to return to class.”
FIRE wrote CVCC president Garrett D. Hinshaw on October 10, pointing out that the Facebook comment was protected expression and was neither incitement nor a true threat. FIRE also noted that CVCC’s policy was unconstitutionally vague, completely failing to give students any opportunity to know what is prohibited by the whims of administrators. CVCC has not responded.
CVCC not only must reinstate Marc Bechtol, but also must revise its unconstitutional policy. When sharp criticism of the college’s financial partnership can get a student suspended and banned from campus, CVCC has caused a severe chilling effect.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. Adam Kissel is Vice President of Programs at the FIRE. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at @adamkissel.