Last Tuesday, Syracuse University College of Law (SUCOL) faculty prosecutor Gregory Germain appeared before the SUCOL Law Student Bar Association to explain the latest developments in his absurd prosecution of a student for “harassment” based on the expression on a satirical law school blog called SUCOLitis. His comments reveal an unfortunately unsurprising lack of understanding of, and even disdain for, the principles of free speech on SUCOL’s campus.
The most revealing lines of all in the meeting minutes come from Professor Germain, who reportedly said:
I think there are a lot of people who have a sense of entitlement to free speech. We have rules that are not designed with the internet in mind and we have very general rules which prohibit bad conduct … [Emphasis added.]
Yes, Professor Germain, people do have a “sense of entitlement to free speech,” as they are indeed entitled to free speech—not just in the United States under the First Amendment, but even (if one can still believe it) at Syracuse, a private university that promises free speech to its students.
In addition, Professor Germain appears to believe that Syracuse’s student handbooks and policies don’t really matter, since after all, he is an “independent prosecutor” who said that he is “not directed by or answerable to the administration” when it comes to prosecuting students. So, if Gregory Germain thinks you have engaged in “bad conduct” under Syracuse’s “very general rules,” that’s that, and he’ll prosecute you.
There are some other Germain gems, like these:
We have gotten a lot of criticism in the press and I have gotten a lot of criticism in the press. We don’t care what they say; they can write whatever they want. … We have not responded well but there is nothing I can do about that. There was an op-ed [in the New York Post], there is an outside organization called FIRE which has been very critical of any investigation involving anything dealing with speech … If we are going forward and there is a media battle we will respond to that.
And this one:
We are not censors here, we don’t have the right to force people to take websites down but we have rules and if somebody wants to post a website they do it and we can’t call up the site and force them to take it down so the only recourse we have is our rules and there was some conduct that constituted harassment. If you have anything else you can come talk to me in my office. Now that the site is private there is less attention. The person who is negotiating here has a chance to resolve this without a great deal of harm, but if they don’t want to then it can be a much bigger deal.
Indeed, once again, Germain finds “harassment” where in fact there is only satire. But “harassment”—despite Syracuse’s own published definitions of the term, which would seem to have more say in the matter than Germain’s own conceptions—is apparently one of those “bad conduct” words that Germain gets to define for himself. And, as we have noted ad nauseam, Germain has never revealed which language on the blog is under investigation, nor has he revealed—three months into the prosecution!—who law student Len Audaer’s accusers are. What is Audaer supposed to apologize for?
OK, one more gem from Germain:
We have to understand that we must protect free speech but it is when somebody goes beyond expressing opinions and views and attacks other people th[e]n our rules come into play. I am a very strong believer in academic freedom and if people want to express political views that you don’t agree with then tough, but when people start making sexual and racial comments th[e]n that is different.
All I will add here is that it now is quite clear that Gregory Germain (who is a tax lawyer) doesn’t specialize in free speech law, because if he did, he might soon find himself fired for saying that “sexual and racial comments” are inherently subject to different standards of protection than other speech.
I also would like to highlight a statement by SUCOL student senator Edward Mullaney:
[T]he prosecution and the press coverage it generated has magnified the problem and given it a national spotlight. When it comes to embarrassing information-no news is good news. This was a public relations nightmare. This prosecution has been far more detrimental to the school’s reputation and has gone on for far too long. It has amounted to a high tech witch hunt that has wasted resources and damaged the school’s reputation. It has wasted our resources and tarnished our reputation. We need to come together as a community and put both the blog and the prosecution behind us[.]
FIRE agrees with Mullaney’s sense that Germain’s prosecution has been ruinous for SUCOL’s reputation. Germain’s comments to the SUCOL Law Student Bar Association are wrong in many different ways, and they further embarrass the law school. It is long past time for SUCOL to end this prosecution and stop asking an innocent student to apologize under threat of “a much bigger deal” such as formal charges and a hearing at the law school.