Syracuse University College of Law (SUCOL) has dropped its outrageous prosecution of law student Len Audaer more than three months after threatening him with severe punishment for "harassment" over his role in a fake-news parody blog about life in law school. "Independent prosecutor" and SUCOL professor Gregory Germain had threatened Audaer with expulsion over satire posted anonymously on the blog, SUCOLitis, without ever revealing what expression in particular justified the charges or even who was charging him.
Audaer came to FIRE for help back in October 2010, after he was summoned to a meeting with SUCOL Associate Professor of Law Gregory Germain due to "extremely serious" charges. In the meeting, held on October 18, Audaer learned that the charges involved "harassment" for his alleged involvement with SUCOLitis. The anonymous, satirical blog emulated The Onion and attributed obviously fake quotes to SUCOL students, faculty, and staff. The blog included a disclaimer stating, "No actual news stories appear on the site," and was designed to be hidden from Internet search engines like Google.
Germain had threatened Audaer with harassment charges despite not knowing for sure whether Audaer had any relationship to SUCOLitis. SUCOLitis attributed its publication to a "team of scarily talented 2 and 3L students."
FIRE wrote Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor on October 25, pointing out that the investigation violated Syracuse’s binding promises of free speech and that the content of SUCOLitis fell far outside of Syracuse’s definition-and the state and federal definitions-of harassment. SUCOL Dean Hannah R. Arterian responded on November 1, stating that the investigation would continue.
It got worse. Germain then demanded that Audaer and his attorney, Mark Blum (SUCOL ’91), sign a gag order as a condition of gaining any documentation of his case. Provisions for such an order are nowhere to be found among SUCOL’s procedures for addressing code of conduct violations. Germain then officially proposed the gag order to the SUCOL Code of Student Conduct Hearing Panel. Contrary to Syracuse’s false public statement about the gag order (which was never issued), it would have effectively prevented any media from reporting on the case using case documents, and it would have prevented Audaer from interviewing witnesses.
Finally, on January 27, 2011, FIRE named Syracuse in The Huffington Post as one of the worst universities in the nation for free speech. Syracuse then prematurely released a statement similar to the statement it had been negotiating confidentially with Audaer and Blum in mediation. Unfortunately, the version Syracuse released was false and misleading.
During negotiations, Syracuse had also pressured Audaer to agree to never criticize Syracuse for its prosecution. Rejecting Syracuse’s plan to completely muzzle him, Audaer instead voluntarily posted an apology in his own words on his website. Yesterday, Syracuse informed Audaer and his attorney that it had dropped the case without conditions and that no charges would be filed against Audaer.
FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said in today’s press release, "Sunlight has again proved one of the best disinfectants. Just days after FIRE named Syracuse in The Huffington Post as one of the worst universities in the nation for free speech, Syracuse dropped the whole prosecution. Without national attention to Syracuse’s violations of its own promises of free speech, Professor Germain could have ended Audaer’s career before it started."
From beginning to end, Gregory Germain and Syracuse in general botched everything about this case. And Syracuse acted just in time. FIRE had been preparing to add Syracuse to our Red Alert list of the "worst of the worst" colleges for free speech—those schools displaying the most severe and ongoing disregard for the fundamental rights of their students or faculty members. Now, Syracuse will not be added to the list. However, Syracuse will retain its "red light" rating so long as it maintains its restrictive speech code, which clearly and substantially violates the school’s own stated commitment to free speech, and encourages its students to inform on one other for expressing "bias"; last Halloween, Syracuse threatened students with discipline if they wore "offensive" Halloween costumes.
Hopefully, the public relations nightmare stemming from this case will teach Syracuse University to stop threatening students with expulsion for expression that is supposedly protected by Syracuse’s own binding promises of free speech.
FIRE also would like to thank Audaer’s attorney, Mark Blum, for volunteering his services. Attorneys who would like to assist FIRE on selected cases should consider joining FIRE’s Legal Network.
And if you want to contact Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor with your views, you can call her at 315-443-2235 or write firstname.lastname@example.org.