Nearly a year ago, FIRE brought attention to the University of Tulsa’s (TU’s) unjust suspension of student George “Trey” Barnett. Now, Barnett, who was only two months away from graduation when he was suspended, is suing TU for violating its policies.
In 2014, Barnett’s then-fiancé—who was not a TU student—criticized two TU professors and a student in Facebook posts tagging Barnett or written directly to Barnett’s page. Susan Barrett, one of the professors mentioned in the posts, filed a complaint against Barnett, claiming he should be held responsible for his fiancé’s posts.
In September 2014, TU Senior Vice Provost Winona Tanaka notified Barnett of the complaint and imposed eight harsh interim measures against him, including removal from three classes and a theater production he was involved in, as well as a ban on communicating with certain faculty members. Less than a month later, Tanaka found Barnett guilty of harassment without providing him the hearing he was entitled to under TU’s policies. She also found him guilty of retaliation for discussing the complaint with his fiancé, who had provided Tanaka with a sworn affidavit stating that he, not Barnett, wrote the posts. Barnett was informed that, as punishment, he would be suspended until at least January 2016, and that he was forbidden from receiving a degree in his major from TU.
Compounding its errors, TU’s administration then told the student newspaper The Collegian, which was reporting on Barnett’s suspension, that if “anything that the university deems to be confidential” was “published or shared, (that) could violate university policies.”
TU refused to acknowledge that its failure to provide Barnett with a hearing violated university policy and ignored FIRE’s and others’ demand that the university immediately reinstate Barnett. In fact, TU was so determined to bury the matter, rather than admit that it failed to live up its promises to respect students’ free speech and due process rights, that it hid criticism of Barnett’s treatment from its Facebook page.
Fortunately, Barnett is still fighting back. His lawsuit, filed January 13, alleges that TU’s refusal to speak to Barnett’s fiancé or his exculpatory witness, and to provide Barnett with procedural safeguards, was negligent and constitutes a breach of contract as it denied him ”any meaningful due process” in violation of TU’s promises to its students. The lawsuit also alleges that TU’s persecution of Barnett violated the university’s promises of free speech and “intentionally and recklessly” subjected him to “substantial mental anguish.” Barnett is seeking more than $75,000 in damages.
TU has not commented on the lawsuit. Hopefully, however, this serves as an important lesson to TU’s administration that students’ rights, like this lawsuit, cannot just be ignored.