As Erica has written here before in detail, Saint Augustine’s College (SAC) in North Carolina refused to allow a student to participate in its graduation ceremonies due to a comment he posted on Facebook about how the college was handling its recovery from tornado damage. If you’re new to Caple’s case, you have indeed read that correctly. Despite SAC’s extensive promises of freedom of expression for students, the college disciplined student Roman Caple because of what it called a "negative social media exchange." Caple is currently represented by attorney Brandon S. Atwater.
Here’s how FIRE summarized the case in today’s press release on Caple’s case:
On April 16, 2011, a tornado hit Raleigh and cut off electrical power to many SAC students. On April 18, SAC announced via Facebook that it would reopen, although some students still were without power. Following complaints, SAC announced a public meeting with Progress Energy and students on April 19. In response, Caple posted this message on SAC’s Facebook page, encouraging fellow students to bring any necessary documentation to the meeting and to anticipate SAC’s response: "Here it go!!!!! Students come correct, be prepared, and have supporting documents to back up your arguments bcuz SAC will come hard!!!! That is all."
On April 27, Caple met with SAC Vice President for Student Development and Services Eric W. Jackson. That same day, Jackson wrote Caple a letter notifying him that he would not be allowed to participate in SAC’s 2011 commencement activities. Jackson wrote that the sole reason for Caple’s punishment was his "negative social media exchange during the institution’s recovery from the tornado." Jackson added that "[a]ll students enrolled at Saint Augustine’s College are responsible for protecting the reputation of the college and supporting its mission."
On April 29, SAC issued a public statement regarding Caple’s punishment, arguing that Caple’s comment and other unspecified comments by him directed "to select individuals" were unacceptable because they "were designed for the sole purpose of inciting students to react to the College’s continued efforts to manage a difficult situation," were an "attempt to create chaos," "were designed to disrupt" the meeting with Progress Energy, and were intended solely "to fuel an already tense situation." SAC has not produced these alleged comments.
Caple received his cap and gown and officially graduated, but he did not walk at graduation or participate in other official activities because of his punishment.
FIRE wrote SAC President Dianne Boardley Suber on May 18, pointing out that SAC’s punishment of Caple violated the college’s extensive promises of freedom of expression. FIRE noted that SAC’s Student Handbook states that "[s]tudents enjoy the same basic rights and are bound by the same responsibilities to respect the rights of others, as are all citizens." These rights include "freedom of speech." SAC’s Student Handbook also states that SAC has an "obligation to provide an open forum to present and debate public issues," and SAC policies further explicitly note that the college is not "a setting described in the concept of in loco parentis" (emphasis in original)-that is, SAC students are to be treated as adults.
The disregard for Caple’s free speech and due process rights as a student at SAC could hardly have been clearer. Yet SAC was unmoved. Our press release continues:
On May 24, a law firm representing SAC wrote FIRE, arguing that SAC had "legitimate reasons" to punish Caple. The firm failed to indicate any of those reasons and did not explain why SAC appeared to act entirely outside of the due process procedures that the school promises its students. Despite the college’s apparent breach of its contractual promises to students, the firm insisted that SAC "did not err or violate Mr. Caple’s rights."
Does SAC really expect this defense to be taken at face value? Given the completely harmless behavior it has been demonstrably willing to punish, however, it is hard to see that this statement was made in good faith. FIRE thoroughly refuted SAC’s claims about the allegedly mayhem-inducing content of Caple’s Facebook comment. If there are really any other posts or actions that justify such a punishment, it’s time for SAC to show what it has. And if it has this information, did SAC ever notify Caple about it so that he could defend himself?
We also flayed SAC’s claim that its students are "responsible for protecting the reputation of the college and supporting its mission." That part of our letter is worth quoting more extensively because the charge it responds to is so meritless:
[S]tudents have no obligation to "protect the reputation of the college" when they express their views about the college. A guarantee of freedom of expression does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech; indeed, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial or offensive. The right to free speech includes the right to say things that are deeply offensive to many people, and the Supreme Court has explicitly held, in rulings spanning decades, that speech cannot be restricted simply because it offends people. In Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973), the Court held that "the mere dissemination of ideas-no matter how offensive to good taste-on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’" First Amendment protection extends even to those statements that anger others. In Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949), the Court held that "a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger." InTexas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989), the Court eloquently explained the rationale behind these decisions, stating that "[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."
As Adam is quoted saying in today’s press release, "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. Instead, SAC did the opposite and punished Roman Caple for exercising his rights."
FIRE will continue its efforts at SAC until the college acknowledges its error. Torch readers, meanwhile, can help the cause of free speech at Saint Augustine’s College by writing to President Suber and asking her to immediately undo this grave injustice.
We will keep you posted on all developments at SAC.
Tell Saint Augustine’s College that it must honor its promises of free speech.