SYRACUSE, N.Y., January 18, 2012—Syracuse University’s School of Education has effectively expelled a graduate student from its teaching program after he complained on Facebook about a racially charged comment made in his presence by a community leader. Syracuse told Matthew Werenczak that his only chance for reinstatement was to undergo a special course of diversity training and counseling for “anger management”—all because he expressed annoyance over a community leader’s complaint that student teachers were coming from Syracuse rather than historically black colleges. After completing all requirements but still being denied readmission, Werenczak turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“Syracuse already has a bad reputation for free speech, but kicking a student out of school for complaining on Facebook about comments he thought were racist is an outrageous new low,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “Syracuse’s shocking decision to punish a student for innocuous online speech is the latest betrayal of the school’s promises of free expression.”
On July 20, 2011, Werenczak was student teaching with Danforth Middle School when he was introduced to a member of the city’s Concerned Citizens Action Program (CCAP). Shortly afterward, in the presence of Werenczak and one other white student teacher, the CCAP member, who is black, said that he thought that the city schools should hire more teachers from historically black colleges. Werenczak later discussed the remark on Facebook, saying, “Just making sure we’re okay with racism. It’s not enough I’m … tutoring in the worst school in the city, I suppose I oughta be black or stay in my own side of town.” Werenczak further wrote that “it kind of offends me that I’m basically volunteering the summer at Danforth, getting up at 630, with no AC, to help tutor kids and that’s not enough.”
While Werenczak was summoned to a meeting with administrators shortly before the school year began, he was not charged with any infraction of Syracuse’s rules and never received a disciplinary hearing. On September 7, however, Social Studies Education Coordinator Jeffery A. Mangram sent Werenczak a letter stating that the School of Education (SOE) was effectively expelling Werenczak because he had “posted on [his] Facebook page comments the SOE finds unprofessional, offensive, and insensitive not only to the Danforth School but also to the SOE and Syracuse University.” Werenczak could avoid expulsion by voluntarily withdrawing, or he could fulfill several requirements in order to gain a chance of “re-admittance”:
“You are permitted from [sic] doing student-teaching in the fall of 2011 while being required to seek counseling for not only anger management issues but also issues relating to your being harassed. Second, you will have to successfully complete an additional course or program on cultural diversity that the SOE chooses. Third, you will have to write a reflective paper that demonstrates the progress and growth you have made in relation to issues regarding cultural diversity as well as your own personal growth. Fourth, a committee will review your paper, meet with you, and determine if you capable [sic] of continuing in the program.”
Werenczak fulfilled the three conditions and notified Mangram via email on December 14. By January 3, 2012, however, SOE had not yet even formed the committee to review his case. Mangram also warned Werenczak on January 4 that if Werenczak took action to push SOE to act, it would “further delay the process.”
FIRE wrote Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor on January 10, pointing out that SOE’s action “profoundly violates Syracuse’s express promises of freedom of speech.” Syracuse promises in its Student Handbook that “[s]tudents have the right to express themselves freely on any subject” and that “Syracuse University … welcomes and encourages the expression of dissent.” Syracuse has failed to respond, leaving Werenczak’s future in limbo.
This is not the first time Syracuse has sought to punish a student for online speech. In the fall of 2010, Syracuse University College of Law student Len Audaer was threatened with expulsion and faced a months-long investigation for his role in a fake-news parody blog about life in law school. In January 2011, FIRE named Syracuse one of the worst universities in the nation for free speech in The Huffington Post. Syracuse dropped all charges against Audaer in February 2011.
“Syracuse’s promises of free speech and due process are rapidly becoming some of the biggest jokes in higher education,” said FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel. “I can see why Werenczak might be disturbed about his job prospects after hearing a remark that implicated his race. But it’s impossible to see how any reasonable person in the School of Education could use such a mild, off-campus expression of offense to destroy a student’s career.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.