DURHAM, N.H., November 12, 2004—In a victory for free speech and fundamental fairness, University of New Hampshire (UNH) sophomore Timothy Garneau is returning to a UNH dorm today after being evicted for posting fliers joking that freshman women could lose the “Freshman 15” by walking up the dormitory stairs. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) protested the university’s disregard for Garneau’s free speech rights, and the university withdrew its unconstitutional charges. Garneau had been living out of his car for almost three weeks.
“We are relieved that UNH has discovered its obligation to the Bill of Rights and that Tim is back indoors,” said David French, president of FIRE. “But the university should never have put a student on trial and evicted him merely for posting a flier.”
Garneau posted the fliers in the elevators of the Stoke Hall dormitory on September 3, in an effort to make light of the common frustration with students delaying the elevator by taking it for just one or two floors instead of taking the stairs. The hastily produced fliers, which were loosely based on an advertising flier posted in the UNH gym, read, “9 out of 10 freshman girls gain 10 – 15 pounds. But there is something you can do about it. If u live below the 6th floor takes the stairs…Not only will u feel better about yourself but you will also be saving us time and wont be sore on the eyes [sic].” Questioned about the fliers by an angry residence hall director, Garneau initially denied his involvement, but admitted a few minutes later that he was responsible for them.
Charged with offenses including “acts of dishonesty”; violation of “affirmative action” policies; “harassment”; and “conduct which is disorderly, lewd,” Garneau was quickly sentenced to expulsion from student housing, given extended disciplinary probation, required to meet with a psychological counselor to discuss his “decisions, actions, and reflections,” and required to write a 3000-word reflection paper about the counseling session. He was also to submit an apology letter to be published in Stoke Hall’s newspaper. After Garneau’s appeal was denied, he contacted FIRE.
FIRE immediately wrote UNH President Ann Weaver Hart, explaining that “forcing a student out of housing for posting a satirical flier is both outrageous and unlawful” and pointing out that even material far more offensive than Garneau’s flier is protected by the First Amendment. FIRE also disputed the “harassment” charges, arguing that hanging a flier was hardly “sufficiently serious (i.e., severe, persistent, or pervasive) as to limit or deny a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program,” as is required by harassment law, and that calling it “harassment” dangerously trivializes real harassment.
Garneau was forced out of his room and into his 1994 Ford Contour on October 24, but on October 27, Esther Tardy-Wolfe, the director of UNH’s Judicial and Mediation Programs Office informed Garneau that UNH had suddenly decided to rescind all of the original charges against him except for “acts of dishonesty.” His sentence was reduced from eviction to “relocation” to another dormitory, extended disciplinary probation, and a single “ethics” meeting with UNH Judicial Officer Jason Whitney.
“While Tim readily admits that he initially did not tell Brad Williams, his Hall Director, that he was responsible for the flier, he was afraid that Williams would punish him severely and unlawfully for his expression,” remarked Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “After being kicked out of the dorms for three weeks, it is clear that his fears were completely justified. Williams had no business ‘investigating’ constitutionally-protected speech in the first place.”
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, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at UNH and on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.