Over the weekend, Syracuse University student newspaper The Daily Orange blasted Syracuse University College of Law (SUCOL) for prosecuting innocent expression posted on a satirical blog called SUCOLitis, which made fun of life in law school—like SUCOL’s version of The Onion. For more than three months, law student Len Audaer has been under investigation with the threat of expulsion for "harassment" because of the expression on the blog, even though:
- he has never acknowledged writing any of the blog posts on SUCOLitis;
- he has never been told which expression on the blog he is being investigated for;
- he has never been told the identities of his accusers.
The Daily Orange‘s staff editorial, titled "Law school wastes resources, time on harassment case," does an excellent job of expressing the embarrassing way in which SUCOL faculty prosecutor Gregory Germain has handled the case over the past 100 days:
Members of the College of Law look forward to the end of a 100-day investigation of a law student for allegedly creating the satirical blog SUCOLitis. Faculty prosecutors claimed the blog constituted harassment, and the case will be settled later this week.
The law school has drawn this case out far too long. The school wasted resources and time, and it compromised its reputation before ultimately deciding the controversial case would be settled quietly within the school.
Too many facts remain unclear. The law school charged one student when the website claimed to be authored by a group. And none of Syracuse University’s definitions of harassment directly encompass the nature of this case.
From the beginning, the law school has blown the offensiveness of the blog and the ensuing investigation out of proportion. Hiring a federal judge to settle a case at an institution that teaches law constitutes an incredible waste of resources. The school should have kept the case completely internal and resolved it months ago.
The blog’s possible effects on the reputation of the school and its students pale in comparison to the bad press the school has created for itself in this case. For a law school with already low national rankings, this case may be retroactive in recruiting talented students.
The settlement should not have included shutting down the website, which disappeared over the weekend. Protecting students’ reputations may be particularly important at a law school. But taking legal action to ban students’ speech sets a frightening legal precedent, causes self-censorship and limits free expression throughout campus.
Indeed, nothing in the SUCOLitis blog constitutes harassment—not even under Syracuse’s definitions of the term. Instead, Germain’s idea of fair notice is the standard that if he thinks it’s harassment, then it is. Germain has flubbed this case from the beginning, and you can bet that FIRE and other supporters of free speech across the country will continue to criticize Germain, SUCOL, and Syracuse University until they honor Syracuse’s promise of free expression.
Meanwhile, Torch readers and other FIRE supporters can contact Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor and SUCOL Dean Hannah Arterian to let them know what you think.