An incredibly contentious debate has slipped under the radar in recent years over students First Amendment rights on the college and university campus. A SUNY Oswego student is in the news after he was suspended for sending emails while attempting to conduct interviews for a class assignment.
The student, Alex Myers, is an exchange student from Australia. He was recently given an assignment to write a feature article on a public figure for his advanced-level course in SUNY Oswego’s journalism department. Alex chose the men’s hockey coach, Ed Gosek, for his subject and sent an email to rival coaches coaches at Cornell University, Canisius College, and SUNY Cortland. Myers explained he was writing an article about Gosek and asked the coaches to comment on their experiences with the Oswego coach.
Myers made one error in his email that later came back to haunt him. Instead of mentioning that he was writing an article for a Journalism class, he stated in the email that he was member of the school’s public affairs office and told the other coaches “what you say about Mr. Gosek does not have to be positive.” Technically, Myer’s was not lying because, at the time, he was a student intern in the public affairs office.
Apparently, someone took offense to Myers’ remark about the comments not having to be positive and contacted the college to complain. The student was summoned by the head of the public affairs office and given a verbal reprimand for his actions. Myer’s assumed that the incident was over and went about his business.
Later that evening, Alex found out he was sadly mistaken. He discovered a letter waiting for him from College President Deborah Stanley ordering him, in bold type, to vacate his dorm room within 24 hours and stay off campus — or face arrest. He was charged under the student conduct code with using campus resources to “defame, harass, intimidate or threaten another individual, academic dishonesty, knowingly furnishing false information to the College, and forgery or alteration or use of documents with intent to defraud.” The young man was suspended and faced serious charges that could have resulted in his expulsion. As a foreign student, that would have led to a revocation of his student visa and deportation back to Australia.
Facing serious consequences and the additional burden being given 24 hours to find a new place to live in a foreign country, Myers turned to First Amendment advocate, the Foundation for Individual Rights In Education. FIRE is dedicated to protecting students from the ever increasing censorship being imposed in the name of political correctness by colleges across America. FIRE won several important First Amendment cases and publishes a widely distributed Red Alert List to expose the worst violators of campus rights. When FIRE talks, college presidents listen and reconsider.
FIRE sent a detailed letter to President Stanley. The organization cited several landmark cases in defense of the student and made it quite clear the college over stepped their authority.They had no valid grounds to make serious legal allegations and threaten the student with arrest.
“It is abundantly clear that Myers’ emails do not cross the threshold for any of the categories of unprotected speech SUNY Oswego has alleged. First, defamation, a narrow exception to the First Amendment that carries a specific legal definition, requires that the speaker make a knowingly false statement with the intent to injure the reputation of its target. But not only does Myers’ email not make any false statements about Gosek, it doesn’t make any factual statements about Gosek of any kind. Myers’ brief email simply encouraged other coaches to speak freely about their interactions with Gosek, regardless of whether their experiences were positive. That Myers’ email invited a frank and honest assessment of Gosek in no way brings it into the realm of defamation as defined under the law.
“Nor does Myers’ email constitute harassment. In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629, 633 (1999), the Supreme Court fashioned a definition of student-on-student harassment in the educational setting that should guide SUNY Oswego here. In Davis, the Court defined harassment as conduct that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.” By definition, this includes only extreme and usually repetitive behavior-behavior so serious that it would prevent a reasonable person from receiving his or her education. The standard for determining student-employee harassment should be at least as stringent as the standard set in Davis, given the relative position of power and influence Gosek, an athletic coach, enjoys compared to Myers, a student. Yet Myers’ emails clearly come nowhere close to even meeting the Davis standard.
“Finally, threats and intimidation also have clear legal definitions, by which SUNY Oswego must abide. The Supreme Court has defined “true threats” as “those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.” Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343, 359 (2003). Likewise,Virginia v. Black states that “[i]ntimidation in the constitutionally proscribable sense of the word is a type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.” Id. at 360. A simple reading of the Supreme Court’s guidance readily dispels any notion that Myers’ emails constitute either threats or intimidation.”
The pressure from FIRE was effective and SUNY backed down to a great extent. Peter Bonila, Associate Director of FIRE, wrote about the final settlement of the case.
“After receiving FIRE’s letter on October 26, SUNY Oswego dropped the “disruptive behavior” charge at his hearing on October 29, leaving only the charge of “dishonesty.” On this front, Myers admits that he substantially erred by not clarifying that he was writing an assignment for his journalism course, and that the writing was not related to his work at OPA. He gives the explanation that he had been in the habit of introducing himself in that manner when completing assignments for OPA, which often involved conducting interviews. (For example, Myers had written a number of “Campus Updates” that were published by OPA.) Myers had already apologized to OPA on October 18 for creating any impression that he had sent the emails on OPA’s behalf.
“On October 31, Myers was officially given a “warning” by SUNY Oswego, though one that came with strings attached. Myers is now required to complete an “education assignment,” under the guidance of his journalism professor, “to share with other students in journalism classes that will share what you have learned from your experience.” Further, he is required to write apology letters to SUNY Oswego hockey coach Ed Gosek, as well as to the three coaches he contacted for his assignment.”
Censorship on the college and university campus is an epidemic. School after school has begun to impose chilling regulations against all sorts of speech as well as designating “Free Speech Zones” on campus where students must go if they wish to engage in any political or controversial discussions. Our institutes of higher learning have increasingly become halls of silence where young men and women hesitate to open their mouths to speak, for fear of violating some arbitrary and often illegal sanction imposed by the administration of the school. Students are truly fortunate to have a dedicated organization like FIRE that is ready, willing, and able to defend the American student’s First Amendment rights.