National Public Radio Affiliate Latest to Cover Syracuse’s Investigation of Law Student

By November 16, 2010

National Public Radio affiliate WRVO, in Oswego, NY, published a story Friday on FIRE’s ongoing case at Syracuse University College of Law (SUCOL), where law student Len Audaer continues to face possible disciplinary charges for his alleged role with the satirical blog SUCOLitis.

Torch readers will remember that Audaer is being investigated for harassment due to the content of the blog, which makes clear that it is a satirical publication that contains no actual news. SUCOL Professor Gregory Germain has been leading the investigation, a fact which would be unexceptional were it not for the numerous statements Germain has made condemning the blog and hinting heavily at Audaer’s presumed guilt, such as in these comments for the student newspaper The Daily Orange:

He said the situation is not normal and described the website as "designed to be offensive."

"Is it normal for blogs to be put up that ridicule certain students’ character?" Germain said.

[...]

This is not an issue of free speech, Germain said, because the site is libelous and there are limitations to individual rights.

SUCOL, meanwhile, has made a joke of due process by not even telling Audaer what the specific charges are and which content on SUCOLitis was so objectionable. On FIRE’s involvement at Syracuse, WRVO reports, with comments from FIRE’s Adam Kissel:

Adam Kissel, FIRE’s vice president of programs, says he read the entire contents of the blog and found nothing close to harassment, which he says has been very clearly defined by the United States Supreme Court.

"Simply having their names mentioned in a satirical way, in obviously fake news on a fake news blog, comes nowhere close to the level of severity and pervasiveness that’s required as behavior to count as pure harassment," Kissel says.

The organization took action by writing a letter to SU Chancellor Nancy Cantor and SUCOL Dean Hannah Arterian stating that "the content of the blog was not in any way harassment and that investigating any student for the content of the blog was an unacceptable violation of Syracuse’s own contractual and moral obligations to freedom of speech that it makes to its students," says Kissel.

The organization contends that SUCOL should immediately end its investigation of the blog, should apologize to Audaer, and should stop trying to punish protected expression.

FIRE received a reply letter from Dean Arterian on November 10, dated November 1.

The letter, posted on the website thefire.org, says the school’s investigation of Audaer is not yet completed.

Meanwhile, "the student remains under a cloud of prosecution for something very serious and the investigators don’t seem to be taking him very seriously," Kissel says.

It would certainly seem that Syracuse isn’t taking Audaer or its investigation very seriously. After a lot of sound and fury initially from the Syracuse administration, we’ve heard barely a peep from them other than Dean Arterian’s letter informing us that Audaer’s investigation was still ongoing. Perhaps they’re delaying the inevitable; after all, as FIRE has shown, the content of the blog doesn’t meet even Syracuse’s standard for harassment, and the past weeks have only heightened awareness of the university’s missteps. Perhaps Syracuse is looking for a way to save face. Yet even if Syracuse drops its investigation, the experience has already taken its toll:

"They can end this whenever they feel like it with an arbitrary decision, they can not end this at all, they can have this drag on and on and on until I leave, and right now that’s something that I honestly feel like doing," Audaer says. "I don’t feel comfortable in my own law school anymore."

He says he has gone from being an extremely active student– the school’s student representative to the American Bar Association and a leader of several student organizations– to registering for as few credits as possible next semester and fearful of going into the buildings.

Audaer says one’s law school has considerable power over one’s future employment prospects. "So this could hang over me forever. And that feels to me like they’re using the trial as a punishment," he says.

Herein lies the real tragedy of the case. Even though it has no case against him, Syracuse is letting its investigation hang over Audaer’s head, wreaking havoc on his education to the point where leaving SUCOL is beginning to seem like an attractive option.

I’ll ask Syracuse again: What, exactly, are you investigating? We’ve seen the whole contents of the blog, we know your policies, and we know there is nothing here meriting investigation. So why do you continue to investigate Len Audaer? Am I missing something here?

Thanks to WRVO for its excellent coverage of the case. More sunlight, apparently, is still needed in Syracuse.

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