FIRE filed an amicus curiae brief in the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, supporting the petitioner-appellants, former members of the Syracuse University Theta Tau engineering fraternity. In 2018, Syracuse dismantled the fraternity and suspended several of its members after videos of a private satirical “roast” — performed for members of the fraternity — leaked from a private Facebook page. Syracuse punished the students based solely on the effect their private expression had on the university community, despite the fact that the expression was not directed at anyone outside the fraternity. In doing so, Syracuse violated its promises to uphold its students’ free speech rights.
In 2019, a New York trial court upheld the university’s punishment, despite finding that the student’s speech would be protected under First Amendment standards. In 2020, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department upheld the trial court’s decision, finding that Syracuse’s numerous, explicit, written promises to protect student free speech rights do not afford students rights consistent with the First Amendment. This prompted the students to appeal to the Court of Appeals.
Our brief explains how students at private universities often struggle to hold their colleges accountable for breaking promises to protect their rights, which allows these institutions to continue to abuse their students’ rights with impunity. FIRE urges the court to hold Syracuse accountable by finding that the university violated its commitment to free speech when it punished the petitioner-appellants for their protected expression.