RALEIGH, N.C., May 31, 2011—Saint Augustine's College (SAC) has refused to allow a student to participate in its graduation ceremonies due to a comment he posted on Facebook about how the college was handling its recovery from tornado damage. Despite SAC's extensive promises of freedom of expression for students, the college disciplined student Roman Caple because of what it called a "negative social media exchange." Caple, who is represented by attorney Brandon S. Atwater, has also come to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley said, "While it promises free speech, Saint Augustine's College has apparently rolled out a brand new, unwritten ‘don't challenge our decisions on Facebook' rule that warrants keeping a student out of graduation ceremonies. It's hard to think of a pettier way to punish a loyal, graduating student for publicly disagreeing with administrators."
On April 16, 2011, a tornado hit Raleigh and cut off electrical power to many SAC students. On April 18, SAC announced via Facebook that it would reopen, although some students still were without power. Following complaints, SAC announced a public meeting with Progress Energy and students on April 19. In response, Caple posted this message on SAC's Facebook page, encouraging fellow students to bring any necessary documentation to the meeting and to anticipate SAC's response: "Here it go!!!!! Students come correct, be prepared, and have supporting documents to back up your arguments bcuz SAC will come hard!!!! That is all."
On April 27, Caple met with SAC Vice President for Student Development and Services Eric W. Jackson. That same day, Jackson wrote Caple a letter notifying him that he would not be allowed to participate in SAC's 2011 commencement activities. Jackson wrote that the sole reason for Caple's punishment was his "negative social media exchange during the institution's recovery from the tornado." Jackson added that "[a]ll students enrolled at Saint Augustine's College are responsible for protecting the reputation of the college and supporting its mission."
On April 29, SAC issued a public statement regarding Caple's punishment, arguing that Caple's comment and other unspecified comments by him directed "to select individuals" were unacceptable because they "were designed for the sole purpose of inciting students to react to the College's continued efforts to manage a difficult situation," were an "attempt to create chaos," "were designed to disrupt" the meeting with Progress Energy, and were intended solely "to fuel an already tense situation." SAC has not produced these alleged comments.
Caple received his cap and gown and officially graduated, but he did not walk at graduation or participate in other official activities because of his punishment.
FIRE wrote SAC President Dianne Boardley Suber on May 18, pointing out that SAC's punishment of Caple violated the college's extensive promises of freedom of expression. FIRE noted that SAC's Student Handbook states that "[s]tudents enjoy the same basic rights and are bound by the same responsibilities to respect the rights of others, as are all citizens." These rights include "freedom of speech." SAC's Student Handbook also states that SAC has an "obligation to provide an open forum to present and debate public issues," and SAC policies further explicitly note that the college is not "a setting described in the concept of in loco parentis" (emphasis in original)—that is, SAC students are to be treated as adults.
On May 24, a law firm representing SAC wrote FIRE, arguing that SAC had "legitimate reasons" to punish Caple. The firm failed to indicate any of those reasons and did not explain why SAC appeared to act entirely outside of the due process procedures that the school promises its students. Despite the college's apparent breach of its contractual promises to students, the firm insisted that SAC "did not err or violate Mr. Caple's rights."
"If I were Saint Augustine's College, I would have commended this student for encouraging his peers to provide documentation that supported their arguments about a contentious issue," FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel said. "Instead, SAC did the opposite and punished Roman Caple for exercising his rights."
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation's colleges and universities. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Adam Kissel, Vice President of Programs, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Dianne Boardley Suber, President, Saint Augustine's College: 919-516-4200; email@example.com
Tell Saint Augustine's College that it must honor its promises of free speech.