St. Augustine’s College Attempts to Justify Punishment of Graduating Senior for ‘Inappropriate’ Facebook Comments

May 12, 2011

On Tuesday, I wrote a blog entry here on The Torch about Roman Caple, the graduating senior at St. Augustine’s College (North Carolina) who was denied the ability to walk at his graduation because of what the college called “a negative social media exchange” in a letter to Caple. Given no specific information, Roman could not discern exactly why the college required him to pick up his degree from the campus security booth instead of allowing him to participate in his graduation ceremony. Roman told news sources that he believed the university was punishing him for a post on his personal Facebook page, written after a deadly tornado that struck Raleigh, North Carolina, that said, “St. Augs is holding classes tomorrow and students in Falcrest still don’t have power. Like, wtf. Really? #dumb.

As innocuous as this Facebook post is, the college recently told media outlets their real reason for punishing Caple, and it’s even more offensive to free speech principles. In a statement to The Huffington Post, St. Augustine’s College claimed that Caple posted “inappropriate comments” to the school’s official Facebook page that it uses to communicate with students. The college provided a screenshot of one of these comments:

Roman Caple Facebook Message

The college’s statement also read:

At a time when the College staff was working diligently to ensure the well being of all students, Mr. Caple, a senior, chose to attempt to create chaos. It was determined that the comments made to the page by Mr. Caple, coupled with other comments he made to select individuals, were designed for the sole purpose of inciting student to react to the College’s continued efforts to manage a difficult situation.

The college has since erased this thread from its Facebook page, so it’s unclear the status to which Caple is responding, but that is irrelevant given that Caple’s post is designed to tell students to be on the “correct” side of arguments and bring supporting documentation. I cannot even imagine how this is an example of creating “chaos.” For a school that promises its students the protections of free speech in its Student Handbook, punishing Caple for informative statements about what documentation students need when in a dispute with the college is an abandonment of both its own contract with students and its role, as a college, to foster the free exchange of ideas. The college cannot, consistent with its own stated free speech ideals, establish a Facebook page for students to communicate with the university and then punish a student for comments that are critical of university policies but constitute entirely protected speech. The college may regulate its own Facebook page by controlling the content and deleting certain posts, but its act of punishing Caple, the first in his immediate family to graduate from college, is astonishing.

Moreover, the college’s justification for its punishment displays a shocking ignorance of free speech principles. Caple’s Facebook post cannot be described as “incitement,” as he was certainly not provoking students to engage in imminent lawless action. (Incitement to what, St. Augustine’s, provide documents?) At most, Caple was expressing an opinion in an attempt to influence students’ beliefs and behavior–the very purpose of having free speech.

St. Augustine’s College also mentioned in its statement that other issues contributed to Caple’s punishment, but would not specify to the media, or to Caple, which issues. Caple thus missed his own graduation for reasons that have not been properly explained by the college. The college’s hasty, unjustified actions will surely have a profound chilling effect on students’ desire to communicate with both the school and each other. Unfortunately, it seems as though that is exactly what the college wanted.

Schools:  St. Augustine’s University

Cases:  Saint Augustine’s College: Student Prohibited from Walking at Graduation Due to Facebook Post