ST. LOUIS, Mo., December 17, 2007—St. Louis Community College at Meramec (STLCC) has placed a student on disciplinary probation and found him guilty of hazing and several other offenses simply for e-mailing other students about his plans to withdraw from a course at STLCC. After he was denied a fair hearing on the charges, STLCC student Jun Xiao contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“STLCC has clearly overstepped the boundaries of both the Constitution and its own policies protecting free expression on its campus,” FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Samantha Harris said. “Placing Xiao on disciplinary probation is an egregious violation of his right to free speech that will undoubtedly wreak havoc on his academic career.”
Xiao, who holds a Ph.D. from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and has postdoctoral training from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University, enrolled at STLCC to satisfy prerequisite course requirements for medical school. He e-mailed his organic chemistry classmates on October 10, 2007, writing: “I am withdrawing from the class and will retake it in the spring of 2008…. Is there someone who wants to retake the class with me?” Xiao e-mailed his classmates again on October 21, stating his intention to withdraw from STLCC and take Organic Chemistry I with a different professor and inviting them to join him in taking Organic Chemistry II at another college.
On October 24, Xiao received a letter from Acting Vice President of Student Affairs Daniel R. Herbst, who informed him that he had been placed on “Disciplinary Probation” for the 2007-2008 academic year and that he was prohibited from contacting other STLCC students by e-mail. The letter also stated that Herbst—without any hearing—had already found Xiao guilty of hazing, disorderly conduct, breach of the peace, and failure to comply with directions of a college official. But when Xiao asked for a written clarification of the complaints and charges against him, Herbst refused to provide any such information.
“STLCC threw the book at Xiao for clearly protected expression,” Harris said. “As a public institution, STLCC has no business telling its students what they may or may not say, even if a student is proposing to leave the college to take a course at another school.”
Xiao’s first appeal of Herbst’s decision was denied by Herbst himself. Xiao then appealed again, this time to STLCC’s Student Appellate Hearing Committee. That committee, which is required to hold a hearing “within 15 calendar days from the date of notification to the student,” has refused even to set a hearing date, instead informing him that the “15-day clock has not begun to tick because you have not yet received official notification,” and that he could “expect” to receive such notification in January. In the meantime, Xiao remains on disciplinary probation and may not contact other students by e-mail.
“STLCC has obstinately declined to give Jun Xiao a timely hearing or the information he needs to defend himself,” Harris said. “While college officials put Xiao on probation more than a month ago, they have refused to give him any more information regarding the complaints lodged against him or the status of his case. Instead, STLCC has chosen to leave Xiao on probation until January, needlessly jeopardizing this future medical student’s academic and professional career.”
FIRE wrote to STLCC at Meramec President Paul Pai on December 4, reminding him that STLCC’s own policies provide that a student must be given notice of the charges brought against him; a description of the alleged violation; names of the persons requesting disciplinary proceedings; names of witnesses in the case; and the date, time, and place of the hearing. STLCC has refused to provide Xiao with any of this required information, denying him the due process rights that STLCC, a public institution, must afford him under its own policies and under the U.S. Constitution. FIRE’s letter also pointed out that Xiao’s case should never have reached this point because his e-mails constitute clearly protected speech. FIRE asked for a response by December 7 but has received none.
“Punishing a student for e-mailing his classmates about the possibility of enrolling in a different course is a shamefully transparent attempt to suppress criticism of the college,” Harris said. “STLCC must either rescind the punishment it arbitrarily meted out to Xiao or, at the very least, provide him with reasonable notice and a fair hearing so that he may defend himself against what appear to be wildly inappropriate charges.”
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, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Samantha Harris, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473;
Paul Pai, President, St. Louis Community College at Meramec: 314-984-7763; email@example.com
Daniel Herbst, Acting Vice President of Student Affairs, St. Louis Community College at
Meramec: 314-984-7607; firstname.lastname@example.org