- TCU suspended a student for social media posts made about current events
- A non-student in Maryland urged her Tumblr followers to write TCU about the student’s posts
- TCU suspended the student and banned him from campus residence halls despite policies explicitly promising students free speech rights
FORT WORTH, Texas, July 29, 2015—Texas Christian University (TCU) has abandoned its stated commitments to free speech and due process after a group of Internet commenters were offended by one student’s social media posts and complained to university administrators.
TCU suspended student Harry Vincent for commentary posted to his personal Facebook and Twitter profiles related to current events, including the protests in Baltimore, the threat of terrorism, and the spread of the “Islamic State.” The suspension comes after a non-student, using the name “Kelsey” and apparently living in Maryland, created a post on her Tumblr page containing screenshots of a selection of Vincent’s posts. Kelsey labeled Vincent’s commentary “racist” and “disgusting” and asked readers to contact TCU to report his speech.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to TCU today to urge the university to reverse the charges and sanctions applied to Vincent for his protected extracurricular expression. FIRE also expressed dismay with TCU’s violation of Vincent’s due process rights, which included coercing an apology from him prior to any determination of guilt.
“If TCU no longer believes student rights are important, it should just come out and say so,” said Ari Cohn, an attorney and Senior Program Officer for Legal and Public Advocacy at FIRE. “Tricking students into attending TCU by making glowing promises of free speech and due process rights—only to go back on those promises following unreasonable demands from someone who doesn’t even attend the school—is shocking and itself offensive to the most basic sense of fairness. TCU should reverse its action against Harry Vincent immediately.”
TCU is a private university and thus not legally bound by the First Amendment. Nevertheless, it is both morally and contractually bound to honor the explicit and repeated promises of freedom of expression that it makes to its students. Among these is TCU’s “Demonstration Guidelines” policy, which states that “TCU firmly supports the rights of all members of the University community to express their views.”
From approximately December 2014 through April 2015, Vincent occasionally posted commentary on his Facebook and Twitter profiles related to current events. Vincent’s viewpoints on these events apparently inspired Kelsey’s Tumblr post on or about April 28, 2015. Shortly after publishing her post, Kelsey and some of her readers reported that they received a response from TCU Associate Dean of Campus Life Glory Z. Robinson that said “the Campus Life Office will address this situation.”
On April 29, Vincent received a letter from Robinson charging him with violating two student conduct code provisions, those relating to “Infliction of Bodily or Emotional Harm” and “Disorderly Conduct.” At the conclusion of a May 1 ”investigative” meeting at which Vincent was first informed of the basis for the charges, Robinson directed him to write a letter of apology for his posts and detail the punishment that he felt would be appropriate for his speech.
On May 8, Robinson informed Vincent that she had found him in violation of the two conduct code provisions and that he would receive a “Suspension in Abeyance” through August 15, 2016, and be placed on “Disciplinary Probation” through his graduation from TCU. Under the terms of his suspension, Vincent can only attend his classes and cannot reside on campus, participate in any co-curricular activities, or utilize any non-academic facilities on campus. He is also required to complete a course on “Issues in Diversity,” complete 60 hours of community service, and meet with Robinson on a regular basis.
On July 16, an appeals panel of TCU faculty members and administrators denied Vincent’s appeal and upheld all aspects of Robinson’s decision. In a July 24 letter formalizing the panel’s decision, Student Conduct and Grievance Committee Chair Lynn K. Flahive summarily dispensed with Vincent’s appeal arguments and declared, “The choices you made caused harm to other individuals. These types of comments are not acceptable at TCU … .”
In addition to betraying its promises of free speech, TCU has also betrayed its due process promises. Robinson coerced Vincent into writing an apology and proposed sanction prior to any determination of his guilt, and then used those statements as evidence of his guilt. In doing so, Robinson violated TCU’s “Fair Play Rights for Students” policy, which states that students have the right “[t]o remain silent about any incident in which s/he is a suspect. No form of harassment shall be used by a university representative to coerce admissions of guilt.” TCU also did not inform Vincent about any details of the specific complaints against him, despite his having requested the incident reports and complaints against him.
“If the TCU administration is willing to punish its students every time they offend someone on the Internet, TCU students should be very afraid,” said Cohn. “That TCU would sacrifice its students’ free speech and due process rights to appease a social media mob betrays where its priorities lie—with its public relations department, not its students’ fundamental rights.”
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.