TCU Student Protests Punishment for Tweets that University Determined Were Offensive

July 31, 2015

By Jeff Mosier at The Dallas Morning News

A Twitter fight with a Maryland woman has gotten a TCU student placed on probation and banned from most campus activities at a place he considered his new home.

The family of Harry Vincent, 19, and an advocacy group are trying to pressure TCU to respect students’ free speech rights, abide by its disciplinary procedures and reverse its punishment of Vincent.

The penalties were the result of a handful of Tweets, including ones slamming Islam, using a derogatory term for Mexicans and saying “hoodrat criminals” in Baltimore should be shipped to the Sahara Desert. Vincent, who is unsure if he’ll return to TCU, said he wasn’t referring to race in those Tweets.

Scott Vincent, the student’s father, said this could have been a teaching moment for the school and his son. Instead, Vincent is being pushed out of a place where he felt at home.

“It seems more like policing than educating,” Scott Vincent said.

TCU officials said little about this case, other than pointing to the Code of Student Conduct. Those who do not “live up to these values” and violate the code can face suspension or expulsion, said Holly Ellman, a university spokeswoman.

She also provided a general statement from TCU: “Texas Christian University’s mission is to educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community. We are always disappointed when any member of our community fails to behave in a way that aligns with our mission.”

Generally, she said, “we just don’t talk about student matters.”

Ari Cohn, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said these types of disputes are common and more likely to happen at places like TCU.

“Private universities are not subject to the constraints of the US Constitution,” Cohn said. “But they are morally obligated to uphold the promises of free speech they make to students.”

The complaint against Vincent originated with the Tumblr account of a 19-year-old from Maryland named Kelsey. Vincent, a conservative who comes from suburban Baltimore, sparred with the liberal Kelsey over politics and current events on Twitter.

Kelsey urged her followers to contact TCU to complain about Vincent’s Tweets and “expose him” and “tell them that he’s shedding a bad light on their university.”

“He isn’t alleged to have actually caused harm to anyone from TCU,” Cohn said. “He was simply guilty of having offended various people half a country away on the Internet.”

The Vincent family has discussed the possibility of a lawsuit but no decision has been made.

Vincent agreed to write an apology after he was told that fighting the accusation could potentially lead to expulsion, Scott Vincent said. He said TCU officials warned him multiple times that filing an appeal could lead to an even harsher punishment, including expulsion. Getting kicked out of a university could potentially make it difficult to get accepted to another.

In his appeal, Vincent said he accepted responsibility for his actions but also said the punishment was “grossly disproportionate” and student handbook procedures weren’t followed.

Vincent argued in his appeal that he wasn’t provided with “reports, statement and allegations” about his offenses. He also wrote that TCU officials never explained how his Tweets applied to the codes he was found to have violated. Those portions of code forbid everything from sexual assault to hate crimes to bullying.

“In my case, the “hearing” was more like a sentencing procedure than a search for the truth,” Vincent wrote.

Part of the debate over Vincent’s social media comments resulted from a clash between two portions of the student handbook.

One section says: “Because the rights of free speech and peaceable assembly are fundamental to the democratic process, TCU firmly supports the rights of all members of the University community to express their views or to protest against actions and opinions with which they disagree.”

Another section says this: “Discrimination and harassment are incompatible with TCU’s mission to educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community…”

Schools: Texas Christian University Cases: Texas Christian University: Student Suspended for Social Media Posts