A student at St. Augustine’s College in North Carolina was denied the ability to participate in his graduation ceremony because of a Facebook post that, according to the Vice President of Student Affairs, “jeopardized the integrity of the college.”
Roman Caple, who had posted several messages of hope on Facebook in response to the tornado that struck the Raleigh, N.C., area, believes the message that provoked the university’s ire against him was “St. Augs is holding classes tomorrow and students in Falcrest still don’t have power. Like, wtf. Really? #dumb.” Although innocuous and nondisruptive, this is likely the post that prompted the university to deprive Caple and his family of the symbolic ritual that commemorates Caple’s accomplishments. Other messages that Caple had written recently on Facebook sounded like this: “We all need to set our differences aside and help one another. Falcons we will continue to fly high because that’s what we do. Help your neighbor, if need be, Falcons are one.”
Punishing a student for such benign criticism of a college’s practices, especially after a fatal natural disaster, is not only an unfairly draconian way of treating a graduating student, but will surely yield an environment where students do not feel safe participating in off-campus, online discussions without being censored. To make matters worse, St. Augustine’s, a private university, specifically guarantees students the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment. The Student Handbook provides that, “The student as a citizen has the rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, freedom of political beliefs and freedom from personal force and violence, threats of violence and personal abuse.” Caple, the first college graduate in his family, thus had no notice that the administration would so sharply circumscribe his right to express himself.
Ironically, President Dianne Boardley Suber encouraged students at the graduation, where 249 students were awarded bachelor’s degrees, to follow their own path to success. “There will be lots of forces that will influence your decision making,” Suber said. “Be careful, always, that you don’t become a part of someone else’s agenda.” Unfortunately, universities across the country are making censorship of student expression part of their own agendas, by punishing Facebook posts that are nonthreatening and nondisruptive and involve speech entirely protected by the First Amendment.