(UofHSpecialist via Wikimedia Commons, CC-By-SA-3.0/Modified from original.)
Among the many disturbing allegations that came to light in recent coverage of a University of Hartford student’s mistreatment of her roommate is the claim that university officials warned the victim against speaking out about what she experienced.
Last week, student Brianna Brochu was expelled and arrested after publicly admitting to attempting to force her roommate, Chennel Rowe, to move out of their dorm room by contaminating and tampering with her personal belongings. The New York Times reports that Brochu posted the following messages to Instagram:
“After one and a half months spitting in her coconut oil, putting moldy clam dip in her lotions, rubbing used tampons on her backpack, putting her toothbrush places where the sun doesn’t shine, and so much more, I can finally say goodbye to Jamaican Barbie,” said the post, which has since been deleted. Ms. Brochu is white; Ms. Rowe is black.
[ . . . ]
As she was in the process of moving, Ms. Rowe said, other residents approached her about several posts Ms. Brochu had made on social media. They included pictures of bloodstains on Ms. Rowe’s backpack and videos of Ms. Rowe eating, with comments suggesting that the utensils she was using had been contaminated.
The Times then wrote that Rowe “accused the school of attempting to keep the episode quiet.” Rowe discussed this allegation in an Oct. 30 video posted to Facebook about the ordeal. According to Rowe, both she and Brochu agreed to sign No Contact Orders requiring that the two students refrain from contacting one another prior to Brochu’s expulsion. But Rowe says the University of Hartford didn’t stop there.
On the night she relocated to a new dorm room, Rowe claims two residential life administrators visited her room to collect her old key — and to warn her that she could face consequences if she spoke openly about her roommate’s actions. Rowe stated, “They’re telling me, ‘Just to let you know, the situation is over, don’t speak about it or else you could be removed from the residential side of campus.’”
At a university that prides itself on its commitment to “freedom of inquiry, freedom of opinion, and freedom of speech” and promises to “recognize the right of dissent” and “the right of anyone to advance his or her views,” Rowe’s claims are galling. After all, a promise to protect free speech is meaningless if it doesn’t include a student’s right to speak out about mistreatment she experiences.
However, despite how shocking such a campus gag order might seem, it’s not all that unusual.
Last year, FIRE condemned Northern Michigan University’s practice of threatening disciplinary action against students who share “self-destructive” thoughts with their peers. Administrators even admitted that they warned 25 to 30 students per semester that involving other students in “suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions” would result in disciplinary action. As FIRE wrote in an August 2016 letter, Northern Michigan University’s gag order on student discussions of mental health could not withstand constitutional scrutiny:
On a college campus, there is hardly a more fundamental exercise of a student’s First
Amendment rights than engaging fellow students in dialogue. NMU’s restriction of student-to-student communication on a specific category of speech—the topic of self-harm—is a content based restriction of expression subject to the highest level of constitutional scrutiny. Subject matter speech restrictions are presumptively invalid and will be deemed constitutional only if narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest, meaning they must be the least restrictive means available to achieve the asserted interest. [ . . . ]
In addition to being a suspect content-based restriction, NMU’s practice of prohibiting speech on self-harm imposes a prior restraint on student expression. “Prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.” Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539, 559 (1976). Courts faced with prior restraints meet them with a “heavy presumption against [their] constitutional validity.” New York Times v. United States, 403 U.S. 713, 714 (1971). Indeed, the practice effectively imposes a gag order on NMU students in crisis or perceived by the administration as being in crisis. Gag orders, like content-based restrictions, must meet a high burden to pass First Amendment muster.
FIRE similarly spoke out in 2013 after news broke that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill used an unconstitutional speech code against student Landen Gambill, who drew national attention for her complaints about the university’s treatment of her sexual assault allegation against a fellow student. Gambill was brought before the university Honor Court on charges of “disruptive or intimidating behavior” after discussing her allegations publicly.
Fortunately, both NMU and UNC eventually relented — but it’s impossible to know how many students before that chose to stay silent on serious issues because their universities threatened punishment or maintained speech codes that effectively banned them from speaking out.
Although the University of Hartford is a private university and not bound by the First Amendment, unlike NMU and UNC, it makes clear free speech commitments — and the First Amendment sets the baseline for the rights a prospective student would reasonably expect to enjoy when a university promises that it will respect freedom of expression. Hartford’s administration should look into Rowe’s claims further to ensure that the university isn’t promising freedom of speech but delivering something very different.
If you believe your college or university is enforcing a gag order against you or banning you from speaking out about important issues, please submit a case to FIRE — we want to hear about it.