By Nick Wojton at The Palladium-Times
OSWEGO – SUNY Oswego was recently named one of the worst free speech schools for students in 2013 by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) following an incident involving a student asking questions about the school’s hockey coach.
FIRE has completed the list for the past three years, according to Azhar Majeed, associate director of legal and public advocacy for FIRE, and this is the first time SUNY Oswego appeared on the list.
“FIRE is a watchdog organization that defends students and faculties rights on college campuses,” Majeed said.
The incident that landed Oswego on the list involved Alex Myers, an exchange student from Australia at the time, who was working on a profile of Oswego’s men’s hockey coach, Ed Gosek, according to emails sent out by Myers.
Myers emailed multiple coaches from other colleges to ask for their opinion on Gosek, and one of the coaches took offense to the email.
According to FIRE, Mike Schafer, head coach of men’s ice hockey at Cornell was contacted by Myers and replied saying the questions were offensive because Myers said the responses could be “forthcoming” and did not need to be positive.
The following day, Myers was delivered a message from SUNY Oswego President Deborah Stanley stating he was on interim suspension that banned him from all campus buildings, including his dorm room.
Myers and SUNY Oswego declined to comment for this story.
Majeed said Myers then contacted the organization when he was suspended by the college.
Once FIRE becomes notified of an incident, Majeed said they investigate and decide whether or not to act.
In the case of Myers and SUNY Oswego, FIRE decided to contact the school. When SUNY Oswego did not drop the case, FIRE made the incident public.
“His email clearly constituted protected speech. He did not violate any rights or anyone else’s rights,” Majeed said.
Majeed did indicate that Myers was guilty of wrongfully identifying himself as a member of the public affairs office for SUNY Oswego, though.
According to Majeed, Myers was employed by the office and he told FIRE he accidently added he was employed by the office in the email because he was in the habit of doing so.
“He misrepresented himself, but he made it clear that the email was for a class assignment,” Majeed said. “It was a gross overreaction.” According to FIRE’s web-site, the school charged Myers for attempting to “defame, harass, intimidate, or threaten another individual or group.” “(The school) charged him with disruptive behavior and under that policy, he allegedly ‘ harassed, threatened or defamed another individual.’ He doesn’t even come close to doing any of those,” Majeed said.
FIRE’s website states “after intense public pressure from FIRE and media outlets like Gawker, the university eventually dropped Myers’ suspension and allowed him to return to campus.” SUNY Oswego also made Myers write apology letters to those involved.
In the case of Oswego, Majeed, who’s been employed by FIRE since 2007, said Oswego wasn’t the worst but near the top of his personal list of issues that have occurred during his time with the organization.
“In the sense of overreacting, it’s near the top,” he said.
Even though FIRE placed Oswego on the list, Majeed said their goal isn’t to slam colleges they place on the list.
“We hope the administration (at SUNY Oswego) have a better understanding of First Amendment rights,” he said.