Saint Augustine’s College (SAC) graduate Roman Caple has filed suit against SAC (located in Raleigh, N.C.) and its president after he was forbidden from participating in spring 2011 graduation ceremonies because of a comment he posted on Facebook about how the college was handling its recovery from tornado damage. Caple’s complaint, filed today in North Carolina state court, alleges that SAC violated its extensive promises of freedom of expression when it disciplined him for what it called a "negative social media exchange." Caple, represented by attorney Brandon S. Atwater, also came to FIRE for help.
Caple’s ordeal began when a tornado hit Raleigh on April 16 and cut off electrical power to many SAC students. On April 18, SAC announced via Facebook that it would reopen, although some students remained 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, claiming that Caple’s comment and other unspecified comments 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." Despite a request from FIRE, SAC has never produced the other alleged comments.
According to the complaint, Caple was forced to receive his cap and gown from a security officer.
FIRE wrote SAC President Dianne Boardley Suber on May 18, pointing out that this punishment violated the college’s extensive promises of freedom of expression. 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 replied to FIRE, arguing that SAC had "legitimate reasons" to punish Caple. The firm failed to indicate any of those reasons or to explain why SAC appeared to act entirely outside of the due process procedures that it promises to students. Despite the college’s apparent breach of several contractual promises, the firm insisted that SAC "did not err or violate Mr. Caple’s rights."
In today’s complaint, filed in North Carolina’s Superior Court Division, Wake County, Caple names SAC and President Suber as defendants. The complaint alleges breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence. It also requests monetary damages to compensate him for expenses incurred in anticipation of his participation in SAC’s graduation ceremonies.
Caple also seeks a commencement ceremony and reception like those his fellow graduates enjoyed. Caple is a first-generation college graduate in his family.
Caple’s case is one that will be well worth following. As Robert says in today’s press release:
"Like any reasonable student, Roman Caple believed Saint Augustine’s guarantees of freedom of expression were genuine. But the college betrayed Roman’s trust in an incredibly petty, mean-spirited way. This filing sends a message not just to Saint Augustine’s, but to private colleges across the country: If you promise your students freedom of expression, you can’t break that promise without consequences."
Indeed, we are hopeful that the state court in North Carolina will vindicate this principle in clear and convincing fashion. We will certainly keep you apprised here on The Torch of future developments in this compelling free speech case.