A Syracuse University engineering fraternity was dismantled and several of its members suspended after videos of a private satirical “roast” — performed for members of the fraternity — leaked from a private Facebook page. The traditional annual roast, written and performed by pledges, lampooned current members of the fraternity. One such skit satirized a fraternity member perceived as racist by portraying him founding a racist fraternity and initiating new members. After someone leaked the private videos without the fraternity’s permission, Syracuse charged the students with a wide array of disciplinary infractions based solely on the effect their private expression had on the university community, despite the fact that the expression was not directed at anyone outside the fraternity. A former adjunct faculty member who criticized Syracuse’s response was informed that he was no longer eligible to teach at the university as a result.
On May 4, 2018, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote to Syracuse Chancellor Kent Syverud to demand that Syracuse respect students’ expressive rights and drop the investigation. On May 9, 2018, Syracuse University General Counsel Daniel J. French replied to FIRE, broadly asserting that “the rights of others to a safe and welcoming learning environment” overrode the fraternity members’ expressive rights. After the university’s disciplinary board handed down suspensions to 15 students, FIRE again wrote to Syracuse on June 13, explaining that the board violated the procedural rights of the students and misapplied basic principles of freedom of expression. The students subsequently filed suit against Syracuse in federal and New York State court.
On June 19, 2020, the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York dismissed the students’ free speech claims. In state court, the New York State Supreme Court at Jefferson County dismissed the students’ free speech claims on January 8, 2019, and the Appellate Division, Fourth Department upheld this dismissal on November 13, 2020.