By Tim Cushing at Techdirt
Nothing generates bad press quite like overreaction, and Tulsa University (OK) is busy making itself look vindictive and stupid. How does it handle critical Facebook posts directed at its staff? Bypunishing the student who didn’t write them and following that up with an attempt to silence critics of its terrible disciplinary decision.
In a triple blow to free speech, due process, and freedom of the press, the University of Tulsa (TU) arbitrarily banned a student from campus until 2016 for Facebook posts that someone else admitted to writing and then attempted to intimidate student journalists who were trying to cover the story.
Student George “Trey” Barnett’s husband, Chris Magnum (posting under the name “Christopher Blackstone”), posted comments critical of TU staff to Barnett’s Facebook page, tagging Barnett in the process. Despite the fact that Barnett didn’t write the posts and Magnum provided a sworn affidavit attesting to his authorship, the university went after Barnett.
[S]hortly after TU professor Susan Barrett filed a complaint against Barnettarguing that Barnett could not “avoid responsibility” because someone else was responsible for the posts, TU Senior Vice Provost Winona Tanaka imposed eight restrictive interim measures against Barnett. The sanctions included suspending his participation in certain courses and activities and even barring him from speaking about certain individuals.
Further steps in the disciplinary process were sidestepped in TU’s push to punish Barnett for something he didn’t write. According to school policies, Barnett was entitled to a hearing prior to the meting out of disciplinary actions, but the university refused to follow its own rules. Instead, it claimed Barnett was somehow “responsible” for the insults and criticisms written by his significant other and asserted that he was just “hiding behind” this “excuse” to avoid being punished.
The university’s disciplinary memo shows a clear lack of understanding of how Facebook works. The memo states that Barnett (already wrong) posted these comments on his page, when in fact, they were posted to his page by someone else. These are very different actions, even if they may look the same to those unfamiliar with Facebook’s posting mechanisms. Yes, the posts would have shown up on Barnett’s page, but it should have been easily apparent these were not posted fromBarnett’s account.
While the posts were certainly negative and verging on defamatory (one instructor is referred to as “morbidly obese,” and that’s about the nicest thing that’s said; another is accused of being corrupt and the word “racketeering” is carelessly deployed), they were not written by the student who was ultimately punished for them. The university had a sworn affidavit in its possession from the actual author, but it wasn’t interested in facts. Not only is Barnett suspended, but he is banned from campus until 2016. And he won’t be earning a degree from TU even after he’s allowed to return to campus, making his prior investment in his theater degree wasted money.
Beyond its vindictive actions towards Barnett, the university also went after its student paper for daring to question its wrongheaded decision.
TU has also threatened the expressive rights of the staff of its independent student newspaper, The Collegian, which this week reported on Barnett’s suspension andcriticized his treatment. The Collegian reports that after contacting TU administrators for comment, student reporters were told by TU’s director of marketing and communications that if “anything that the university deems to be confidential” is “published or shared, (that) could violate university policies.” The university refused to explain what might constitute “confidential” information and, come press time, the journalists were unsure what action the university might take against them.
Strange behavior for a university that claims its students are guaranteed “the rights and privileges granted citizens by the Bill of Rights.” So far, the university has attacked students’ free speech and arbitrarily stripped away the due process its own policies promise to students facing discipline. So much for that “guarantee.”
FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) has issued its a statement condemning TU’s actions:
“TU students are right to be concerned about their free speech and due process rights, given the university’s sheer vindictiveness in banishing Barnett and its treatment of their student newspaper,” said Bonilla. “We’ve warned TU about its dangerously overbroad harassment policy before, yet it continues to fly in the faceof its promise that students retain ‘the rights and privileges granted to all citizens in the Bill of Rights.’ The university needs to be held accountable for breaking that promise.”
“Held accountable” likely means a lawsuit is in the works, as the university has shown no interest in rolling back its decision. A memo issued sixty days after Barnett’s appeal states — without accompanying explanations for its findings — that all of his complaints (lack of due process, the school’s decision is unsupported by the accompanying facts, etc.) are “without merit” and that the ban will remain in place. Its unwillingness to recognize the many flaws of its decision are likely going to cost it some money down the road. Standing its ground when it’s so clearly in the wrong will have a chilling effect on its student body, which now knows any attendee can be punished for the actions of others.
The backlash to all of this didn’t take long at all to rub the supersensitive university the wrong way. Prolific twitterer, revenge porn nemesis and erstwhile provocateur Adam Steinbaugh headed to Tulsa University’s Facebook page to ask it about its stupidity, highlighting how easy it was for someone to post to someone else’s Facebook page.
This post was swiftly deleted by the page admin. So, Steinbaugh asked again. This too was deleted, as were related questions and comments from others. Finally, the TU Facebook admin went full nuclear ostrich and just deleted everything posted by others to its page, whether it involved the university’s vindictive discipline of Barnett or not.
Nothing says you’re wholly in the right quite like a deliberate and proactive avoidance of any discussion on the matter, eh Tulsa?