Lawsuits filed by Syracuse University Theta Tau fraternity members against SU in state and federal court are showing promising signs as they seek to vindicate their free speech rights. The lawsuits have the potential to help establish that private universities must follow through on their promises to protect the free speech rights of their students.
After SU suspended 15 members of the Theta Tau fraternity chapter on June 5 for hosting a private, satirical roast at their residence, several of the students filed lawsuits against SU in state and federal court. The students claim that SU’s decision to punish them for the roast violates the university’s written policies guaranteeing students free speech rights consistent with First Amendment standards. According to the lawsuits, these policies form a binding legal contract between the students and the university — an agreement the school broke by suspending the students for their protected expression.
The lawsuits reiterate FIRE’s concerns about this punishment, first discussed in our letters to SU, in which we explained how the university may not discipline students for speech that offends others or casts disrepute upon the university. We warned SU that it violates its free expression policies at its own peril. Now these students seek to hold SU accountable for its broken promises.
Although the lawsuits are still in the preliminary stages, there are hints that the judges are leaning toward a favorable ruling for the students. On Sept. 18, the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York denied SU’s attempt to dismiss the lawsuit and consolidate the proceedings in state court. Additionally, the Jefferson County Supreme Court declined SU’s request to force the students to identify themselves in court proceedings. Additionally, in a transcript of the state court proceeding, the judge suggested that the Theta Tau students have a meritorious claim.
The lawsuits represent a rare attempt to hold a private university legally accountable for the free speech promises it makes to its students. We’ve covered many First Amendment lawsuits where students and professors face off against public universities, which are bound by Constitution as government institutions. However, this case presents a great opportunity to establish that private universities must adhere to their institutional commitments to free speech — a ruling that would go a long way toward protecting the free speech rights of students at these colleges.
We’ll keep our readers updated as to how these lawsuits shake out.