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Silencing the boo birds: University of Hartford improperly threatened student-athletes over ‘disruptive’ graduation expression
At FIRE, we see a lot of thinly-veiled threats toward student speech. The University of Hartford’s recent warning to student-athletes and their coaches, however, left no doubt of the consequences should they express anything administrators dislike.
“I encourage you to address with your team,” began interim Athletic Director Sharon Beverly in an email to the University of Hartford’s coaches ahead of last Sunday’s commencement, “that while any disruption may result in [student] disciplinary actions, including but not limited to their diplomas or transcripts being held, the respective sport programs may also have repercussions. These will include forfeiting games and/or suspensions of the entire 2022-2023 season.”
Beverly also sent a similar email to student-athletes themselves, which under the artificially cordial “Congratulations!” subject line relayed the ominous admonition that “[I]t is expected that all graduates and their guests will be courteous during the entire ceremony and refrain from behavior that is disruptive, distracting, or dangerous.”
Beverly’s attempt to keep the boo birds in their cage comes after an embarrassing 2021 commencement during which attendees booed Hartford President Gregory Woodward off the stage after he announced the university would leave Division I athletics for Division III and stop awarding athletic scholarships by the start of the 2023 school year.
Students who participate in athletics do not broadly relinquish their rights off the field.
If Hartford is looking to restore its reputation and bolster goodwill from students, blatantly censoring its athletes is a curious approach. It’s also likely an unlawful one, given that Hartford makes clear, binding promises of free expression in documents like its student handbook.
“Because student-athletes are students first,” FIRE wrote in a letter to Woodward and Beverly today, “threatening them with discipline for anticipated expression imperils the free speech rights the university promises.”
As the letter went on to explain:
[S]tudent-athletes may accept certain limitations on their freedoms in exchange for the benefits of athletic team membership. Yet, these limitations do not apply to ceremonies like commencement, which student-athletes attend—like other students—while they are not actively representing their athletic teams. Students who participate in athletics do not broadly relinquish their rights off the field.
We also noted Beverly’s failure to define “disruption” in either of her messages, “imperils a wide range of potential student expression.” For example, are “disruptions” reserved for negative expression directed toward university officials, or would clapping or cheering rise to the level of punishable conduct? Neither of Beverly’s emails make this clear.
Hartford’s move from DI to DIII was inarguably a matter of public interest.
To the extent Hartford may try to justify the policy by citing concerns about the views student-athletes might express, it “constitutes viewpoint-based discrimination, which the Supreme Court has called ‘an egregious form’ of censorship and antithetical to the freedom of speech, which Hartford clearly promises.” To that end, “Hartford’s Interim Athletic Director may not appoint herself the arbiter of which views students can and cannot express, particularly on a topic of public concern.”
Hartford’s move from DI to DIII was inarguably a matter of public interest: The media widely reported on the issue, and it was the subject of a lawsuit by some of the university’s student-athletes.
FIRE has asked the university for a substantive response to our letter by June 8, clarifying that they won’t threaten student-athletes for anticipated expression and will uphold the university’s promises of free expression.
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