Syracuse punishes student for asking man at party if he’s a Canadian sex offender

January 19, 2022
  • Freshman found responsible for harming the man’s “mental health and safety” 
  • Placed on disciplinary probation and required to attend “Decision-Making,” “Conflict Coaching” workshops
  • Student: “I used my voice to protect myself and others from the possibility of predatory behavior. Now I’m being punished for it.”
  • FIRE calls on Syracuse to reverse charges on appeal and reform its policies

Syracuse, N.Y., Jan. 19, 2022 — She’d heard rumors that the guy at the party had a history of problematic behavior toward women. So Syracuse University freshman Samantha Jones went right up to him and asked: Was he a registered sex offender?

Now, Syracuse is enforcing its ban on causing “mental harm” to punish the 18-year-old biology student for her question. It’s a move that adds to Syracuse’s troubling history of censorship and raises new questions about the vulnerability of Syracuse students who report or discuss sexual misconduct on campus. 

Samantha Jones.

“Syracuse’s nebulous ban on ‘mental harm’ means students don’t know if they can ask questions or discuss sexual misconduct without getting in trouble,” said FIRE Program Officer Alex Morey. “Administrators should take action now to ensure these kinds of vague policies don’t infringe students’ core expressive rights.”

In October, having heard rumors of past predatory behavior, Jones approached a fellow student at an off-campus party and asked him if he is a registered sex offender in his native country, Canada. 

He reported the incident to campus police, who referred the matter to Syracuse’s Office of Community Standards. Last month, the University Conduct Board found Jones responsible for violating a ban on “[c]onduct, whether physical, electronic, oral, written or video, which threatens the mental health, physical health, or safety of anyone.” Jones has since been placed on disciplinary probation and is required to attend “Decision-Making” and “Conflict Coaching” workshops.

“Accusing someone of something that has no validity, especially being on a sex offender list can harm one’s mental health and safety,” wrote Syracuse administrator Sheriah Dixon in a December memo detailing Jones’ formal punishment. The problem with this assessment? Jones didn’t accuse the man of anything. The Conduct Board’s own findings conclude plainly that all Jones did was seek clarification about rumors.

“I used my voice to protect myself and others from the possibility of predatory behavior. Now I’m being punished for it,” said Jones, who is appealing the decision. “This has scared our community and campus into a state of no longer reporting predators on campus due to a fear that the school will retaliate.”

FIRE wrote to Syracuse on Friday, asking the school to reverse its charges against Jones and reminding the institution of its obligations to protect student speech and facilitate sexual abuse reporting. FIRE urges Syracuse to clarify to students that asking questions or reporting sexual misconduct on campus doesn’t constitute “mental harm” — and won’t get them punished.

FIRE warned that this policy would be abused when Syracuse adopted it in 2020. Jones’ case shows how easily the “mental harm” ban ratchets up the stakes of any run-of-the-mill student disagreement. The looming threat of punishment will cast a chill over campus conversations.

“Syracuse has been a bad actor in the free speech space for years, but this case represents an outrageous new low.”

By punishing Jones for discussing sexual misconduct, Syracuse may also be violating its institutional, state, and federal obligations to facilitate sexual abuse reporting on campus. Syracuse students might fear that reporting abuse could trigger “mental harm” in their alleged abusers — leaving sexual misconduct victims vulnerable to discipline under the policy.

“Syracuse has been a bad actor in the free speech space for years, but this case represents an outrageous new low,” said Morey. “Administrators should throw Sam’s case out and immediately review any policies that threaten students’ most basic rights. Meanwhile, students, faculty, and alumni should get mad about what is happening at Syracuse.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.

CONTACT:

Katie Kortepeter, Media Relations Associate, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org

Sheriah Dixon, Director of Community Standards, Syracuse University: studentconduct@syr.edu

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Schools:  Syracuse University

Cases:  Syracuse University: Student Found Responsible for Threatening Another Student’s Mental Health