Syracuse’s Troubled Relationship with Free Speech

By on December 23, 2012

Syracuse University can be a real puzzler. Renowned for its journalism school and home to the Tully Center for Free Speech, one would think that Syracuse, while private, would be a safe haven for freedom of expression and for the marketplace of ideas. One would be wrong. 

In fact, Syracuse has become a watchword around FIRE’s office for horrendous abuses of students’ rights to free expression. When we get a case submission from Syracuse, we all think, "oh great, not again." The cases of Matthew Werenczak (kicked out of the education program for complaining about racism on Facebook) and law student Len Audaer (persecuted for contributing to a satirical blog in the style of The Onion) are so bad that they are fated to live in infamy for a long time. Syracuse public safety chief Anthony Callisto’s 2010 statement that Syracuse cops would remove "offensive" Halloween costumes is also preposterous. 

This year, Syracuse was once again rated a "red light" school in our annual Spotlight on Speech Codes report, in which we annually rate over 400 colleges and universities by determining whether campus policies infringe on or respect the right to free speech. Syracuse earned its red light because of a troublesome electronic communications policy that prohibits online harassment by banning "annoying, abusive, profane, threatening, defamatory or offensive" messages. Red light policies are policies that both clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech. (Syracuse has five other "yellow light" policies too. Yellow light policies are policies that could ban or excessively regulate protected speech.) 

Thankfully, however, we have also noticed that among Syracuse’s students and faculty are people who really do care about free speech rights. This article from The Daily Orange student newspaper is a great example of a student journalist taking the issue seriously. It also features a couple of faculty members weighing in on Syracuse’s electronic communications policy and its resulting red light rating: 

The policy does not impose on students’ constitutional right to freedom of speech because SU is a private institution, said Lisa Dolak, a professor at SU’s College of Law. 

"SU has the right, as a private institution, to impose these kinds of policies," she said. "If we were talking about a government imposing this policy, it’s a very different situation." 

At the same time, Dolak said, the policy raises concerns about its expansiveness and reach. Vague wording in the policy, like "offensive messages," is subject to varied interpretation and can lead to misunderstandings, she said. 

"I think that this policy, like all policies, should be reviewed and reconsidered," she said. 

[...] 

"It looks like Syracuse, unfortunately, is in good company with many other colleges and universities in the United States when it comes to free speech on campus," Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech, said in an email. "Free speech is a pretty delicate thing on college campuses everywhere these days." 

FIRE hopes that Syracuse administrators will finally start taking their cues from professors like Dolak and Gutterman, and begin working to make Syracuse the beacon of liberty it can and should be—before the college faces another embarrassing free speech debacle.

Schools: Syracuse University