Syracuse reverses course after expelling student for Facebook post

January 23, 2012

College students and activists on Twitter and Facebook this week dubbed Syracuse University a campus "where free speech goes to die" after the school’s second social media controversy since 2010.

Syracuse readmitted a graduate student Jan. 19 after a free-speech organization publicized the university’s punishment for posting racially tinged comments on Facebook.

Matthew Werenczak, a graduate student in Syracuse’s School of Education, was a student teacher at a local middle school in July when he heard a representative from the Concerned Citizens Action Program (CCAP) say that the school should hire student teachers from historically black colleges, not Syracuse.

Werenczak complained on his own Facebook page about the representative’s comment, and was later called to a meeting with Syracuse administrators to discuss the social media exchange.

No action was taken at the time, but in September, Werenczak received a letter saying he would be expelled from the school unless he took anger-management counseling, completed diversity training, and wrote a paper on his growth "regarding cultural diversity."

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit group that tracks free-speech issues in higher education, sent an open letter to Syracuse officials Jan. 18 on Werenczak’s behalf. The school readmitted him less than 24 hours later.

Syracuse did not respond to interview requests from eCampus News.

"Syracuse kicked a student out of school for complaining on Facebook about comments he thought were racist, and only reversed its decision in the face of public outrage," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. "It’s long past time for Syracuse to live up to its promises of free speech and stop treating its students as second-class citizens."

Werenczak, discussing the CCAP representative’s comments, wrote on Facebook: "It’s not enough I’m … tutoring in the worst school in the city, I suppose I oughta be black or stay in my own side of town."

He went on to write, "It kind of offends me that I’m basically volunteering the summer at Danforth, getting up at 6:30, with no AC, to help tutor kids and that’s not enough."

The university drew unwanted attention in 2010 when administrators investigated a Syracuse University College of Law student for his participation in a satirical blog poking fun at life in law school.

Even though the blog included a disclaimer that "no actual news stories appear on the site," Gregory Germain, a Syracuse law professor, threatened to expel the student for his posts on the blog.

Syracuse was placed atop of list of colleges and universities with the worst free-speech policies shortly after the threats of expulsion against the law student became public. Facing public pressure, Syracuse called off the investigation just days after the list was released online.

"Syracuse has a terrible history with online student speech, and we ought to be vigilant to make sure Syracuse upholds its promises," Adam Kissel, vice president of FIRE, in a blog post.

Kissel questioned the university’s claim that administrators were following campus procedures.

"It’s quite disturbing that Syracuse called this ordeal the standard process," he said. "Is it normal to expel someone without issuing charges or having a hearing, then to require psychological counseling and mandate diversity training for just thechance of readmission-all because of Facebook comments? I doubt the School of Education’s accreditor will agree."

Meanwhile, college students and free-speech advocates on Facebook and Twitter excoriated Syracuse for its handling of the latest social media controversy.

Several tweets labeled Syracuse a place "where free speech goes to die," while others bemoaned an "abuse of students’ rights."

Schools: Syracuse University Cases: Syracuse University: Education Student Expelled over Facebook Comments