NOTE: The article excerpted on this page is from an outside publication and is posted on FIRE's website because it references FIRE's work. The viewpoints expressed in this article do not necessarily represent FIRE's positions.
Have you ever lived in an apartment building? Have you ever been annoyed that some people take the elevator when they are going up or down only one or two flights of stairs? The fact that some people would rather slow down the elevator for everyone else rather than take the stairs drives many people nuts.
University of New Hampshire student Tim Garneau was annoyed by this problem in his dorm, so he made up a teasing flyer that read, verbatim: “9 out of 10 freshman girls gain 10-15 pounds. But there is something you can do about it. If u live below the 6th floor takes the stairs …. Not only will u feel better about yourself but you will also be saving us time and wont be sore on the eyes.”
Along with the writing, Garneau included a cartoon of a woman in outdated workout gear. In September, Garneau posted copies in the elevators. They were torn down in less than two hours.
When the hall director, Brad Williams, accused Tim of posting the fliers, he initially denied responsibility, fearing that he would be unreasonably punished. Soon thereafter, he admitted to posting the flier and posted a public apology.
This was not enough for Williams, however, and he brought Garneau up on astounding charges, including violating the university’s affirmative-action policy and engaging in discriminatory harassment, disorderly conduct and dishonesty. The University of New Hampshire, incidentally, is a public university bound by the First Amendment, under which expression far more offensive that what Garneau had produced is constitutionally protected.
Garneau was found guilty of every charge. In a warped and thoroughly unconstitutional redefinition of “discrimination,” his flier was deemed an unlawful assault on women on campus.
Disregarding his immediate public attempts to apologize and how jokes and remarks about the “Freshman 15” have been commonplace for years, Garneau had sinned so severely in the eyes of the university that he was kicked out of the dorms; placed on probation until May 2006; required to issue another apology, which would then be published; required to meet with a counselor; and required to write a 3,000-word reflection paper about the counseling experience.
His family had to come move him out of the dorms after his appeal was denied. Garneau was banished to living out of his car in the cold New Hampshire autumn for three weeks.
While some may argue that he could have at least been found guilty of dishonesty for initially lying to Williams, the hall director’s decision to investigate constitutionally protected expression, his subsequent hysterical actions and the disproportionate punishment Garneau received demonstrate that his fear of being unfairly and, even unlawfully, punished was entirely justified.
Perhaps he was aware of the multitude of cases around the country in which, once a student or faculty member says something that offends, the speech is immediately recharacterized as “harassment” or some other violation. This happened at Occidental College in Los Angeles in the spring, when a student radio host was kicked off the air and found guilty of “harassment” for on-air jokes.
Occidental continues to deny any wrongdoing. Similar incidents recently took place at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Rhode Island College and Georgia State University, while hundreds of universities across the country continue to define “harassment” in a way that restricts what would be clearly protected speech in the larger society.
The abuse of the “harassment” rationale to punish protected speech has become so commonplace, in fact, that the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education issued a clarification letter in July 2003 to explain to universities that they may not use federal harassment law as an excuse for punishing protected speech.
The civil rights office explained that “the offensiveness of a particular expression, standing alone, is not a legally sufficient basis to establish a hostile environment under the statutes enforced by OCR.” Unfortunately, too many universities seem to have ignored this letter and move ahead with a belief that expression that offends anyone is “harassing.”
There is something far more pernicious for our society at work here, however, than a mere legal misunderstanding – something that cannot be fixed just by a careful explanation of the law. Too often on the modern campus, if you offend someone, no matter what your intentions were or what kind of person you may be, you are immediately demonized.
Despite writing apologies, offering to educate students about harassment, offering to do public service and trying to “atone” for his horrible sin in a variety of ways, Tim Garneau was considered beyond redemption. He was found guilty by the campus judiciary of violating propriety, and therefore, his rights, the hardships he would face, his future academic career, and, indeed, his humanity were all discounted.
The University of New Hampshire clearly is trying to make an example of Garneau. But what he is an example of is probably different from what the university had intended.
Garneau is an example of what bullies can do when they are given too much power. He is an example of a special kind of madness that grips our universities where students can have their academic careers and college experience ruined for a single moment of misconstrued rudeness. He is an example of how our increasingly polarized society too often sees the people it disagrees with as not fully human but rather caricatures of societal evil.
On Oct. 22, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education began a campaign to vindicate Garneau’s rights. After the media calls started coming in from reporters who received an advance copy of the organization’s release, the University of New Hampshire quickly decided to repeal the more-ludicrous charges and now have found him guilty only of “dishonesty.” After three weeks of exile, he recently was allowed to return to the dorms but was required to attend a meeting to discuss “ethics” with an administrator.
After throwing the law and basic rights out the window to punish one of its own students, the University of New Hampshire is hardly in a position to lecture anyone about morality. Meanwhile, students on campus have learned to keep their jokes and dissenting opinions to themselves – or else.