Student prohibited from graduation for Facebook comments

June 2, 2011

Facebook and college go hand and hand these days — students read up on each other, share funny videos, send messages, and publicize those embarrassing photos from the night before. At Saint Augustine’s College (SAC), however, posting the wrong thing on Facebook will land you in hot water.

The Raleigh, N.C., college prohibited senior Roman Caple from participating in his class’ graduation because of a “negative social media exchange” he had on Facebook regarding the school’s response to the April 16th tornado damage.

What Caple is being punished for is encouraging his peers on SAC’s Facebook page to go to the school’s public meeting to argue for what he thought was the best way to respond to the tornado damage.

“Here it go!!!!!” he wrote. “Students come correct, be prepared, and have supporting documents to back up your arguments bcuz SAC will come hard!!!! That is all.”

Several days later, Caple met with SAC Vice President for Student Development and Services Eric W. Jackson, who that same day informed Caple that he would not be allowed to walk with his class.

In a letter to Caple, Jackson explained that the reason for his prohibition was the Facebook comments, adding that “[a]ll students enrolled at Saint Augustine’s College are responsible for protecting the reputation of the college and supporting its mission.”

While graduation has already happened, without Caple participating, the student is still fighting the decision. His attorney, Brandon S. Atwater, has sought help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

“While it promises free speech, Saint Augustine’s College has apparently rolled out a brand new, unwritten ‘don’t challenge our decisions on Facebook’ rule that warrants keeping a student out of graduation ceremonies,” FIRE senior vice president Robert Shibley said. “It’s hard to think of a pettier way to punish a loyal, graduating student for publicly disagreeing with administrators.”

In a statement issued in response to concern about Caple’s punishment, the school explained that the decision was due to the fact that they saw Caple’s words as an attempt to stir up trouble.

“At a time when the College staff was working diligently to ensure the well being of all students, Mr. Caple, a senior, chose to attempt to create chaos,” the school wrote in a statement. “It is important to note that Mr. Caple is a student who resides off campus and therefore, was not present on campus throughout the tornado or its aftermath.”

The college added that they had had past troubles with Caple, but were not prepared to share them at this time.

“Throughout his matriculation, there were more incidents involving Mr. Caple that factored into the College’s decision, however, because of FERPA [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] constraints, that information cannot be disclosed,” the school added. “The posts to Facebook during this time left the administration with no other choice other than to exclude him from the actual commencement exercise.”

Either way, Caple is prepared to fight the decision with FIRE’s help.

“If I were Saint Augustine’s College, I would have commended this student for encouraging his peers to provide documentation that supported their arguments about a contentious issue,” FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel said. “Instead, SAC did the opposite and punished Roman Caple for exercising his rights.”

Schools: St. Augustine’s College Cases: Saint Augustine’s College: Student Prohibited from Walking at Graduation Due to Facebook Post