Yesterday, FIRE sent Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud a letter calling on his administration to overturn the suspensions of 15 members of the SU Theta Tau fraternity chapter for their protected expression. The letter details how a flawed disciplinary hearing resulted in SU betraying its promises to uphold the free speech and due process rights of its students.
This is our second letter to Chancellor Syverud regarding SU’s response to leaked videos of the fraternity using deliberately offensive language in a private satirical roast of its members. After the videos became public on April 18, SU initiated disciplinary proceedings in May and found the students responsible for several student code of conduct violations on June 5.
In our letter, we describe how “SU and the hearing panel fundamentally misconstrue the principles of freedom of expression to which SU has voluntarily committed itself.” We walk through the various due process deficiencies with the hearing process, including the impermissible bias of the panel and its failure to consider all relevant evidence in making its determination.
SU law professor Gregory Germain echoes these concerns in The Washington Post, stating that SU “used an unfair process to convict these kids of things that they did not do,” a result that “is very troubling to those of us who believe that a great university must be a place for the free exchange of ideas and dialogue, and fairness in its hearing processes.” SU responded to Germain’s comments by reiterating the offensiveness of the expression and categorizing the situation as one “where the rights of one group to speak freely collide with the rights of others to have a safe and welcoming learning environment.”
However, as FIRE has repeatedly told SU, punishing students for their protected expression creates a learning environment hostile to dissenting, controversial, and minority voices, where students fear punishment for anything from harmless jokes to political statements. As stated by Germain, SU cannot claim to create a welcoming learning environment when it treats its students as “disposable if they unintentionally embarrass the administration.”
We call on SU to see the light when it comes to protecting student rights by vacating a ruling “divorced from fairness and common sense.” We’ll be sure to keep our readers apprised of any updates.