This week, FIRE was quoted in two newspaper articles covering the story of a Portland State University graduate student, Henry Liu, who was expelled from the university last month for allegedly constituting a campus threat.
As The Oregonian reports, Liu was expelled for allegedly expressing frustration about a faculty member to a classmate and mentioning firearms in the same conversation:
Liu’s classmate told police he vented loudly about the conflict resolution program and its chairman, Robert Gould, saying, “I’m about ready to stick a .45 in his ass.” She said that Liu had complained about his chronic back problem and sleeplessness, and that he was going target shooting that weekend, according to a campus police report.
Liu contends that he was merely expressing unhappiness with a grade he received from a different faculty member, whom he never threatened:
Liu disputes his classmate’s characterizations of the conversation. He says he confided his deep disappointment in PSU’s conflict resolution program and his unhappiness with assistant professor Stan Sitnik, who had given him a B-plus instead of the A he thought he deserved. But Liu says he never raised his voice and never mentioned Gould.
The Oregonian piece is worth reading to get a fuller picture of the case. It is also useful for considering the oftentimes difficult and complex issue of how universities can address allegedly threatening behavior on the part of students while at the same time providing breathing room for their free speech rights. On this point, the article quotes our own Will Creeley:
Since [the Virginia Tech shootings], campus administrators across the United States have grown hypervigilant to the point where concerns about gun-related speech have spiked into a state of alarm, says William Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy for [FIRE].
“We are seeing an increased sensitivity to any behavior that could possibly be construed as aberrant, threatening or evidence of some larger personality disorder,” Creeley says. “As a result of this broad focus on unusual behavior, we’re seeing lots of normal, protected speech swept into the dragnet and used as reason for investigation or even punishment.”
We at FIRE are no strangers when it comes to witnessing university restrictions and punishments of protected campus expression that is overzealously labeled as a “threat.” While the identification of true campus threats is an important and sensitive issue, one need only take a look at our cases at Valdosta State University and the University of Wisconsin–Stout to comprehend the dangers to freedom of speech when universities reach too far and punish speech that cannot in any reasonable way be labeled a true threat.
The Associated Press has also picked up on this thought-provoking case in an article featuring FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. Both the AP article and the Oregonian piece are well worth your time.