Civil Liberties

Texas Christian University Suspended Student for Saying Dumb Things on Facebook

An administrator treated his apology as a confession. There was no trial.



Harry Vincent, a student at Texas Christian University, was disciplined after someone—presumably a non-student—complained to TCU administrators about his comments on social media. A TCU official then accused Vincent of "infliction of bodily or emotional harm," instructed him to write a letter explaining how he should be punished, and ultimately suspended him.

Vincent's sentence extends until graduation. He is allowed to attend classes in the fall, but may not participate in extracurricular activities. He must serve 60 hours of community service and take an "Issues in Diversity" course. He is forbidden from living on campus.

What did Vincent do? He tweeted some unkind remarks about Baltimore residents and Muslims. Specifically, he referred to the "hoodrat criminals in Baltimore" and told someone to "chill the fuck out you islamic shit head." A Tumblr user named Kelsey, who does not attend TCU, posted screenshots of his comments and implored others to report him to TCU's Campus Life department. A number of Tumblr users, including Kelsey herself, did so.

Later, Kelsey reported that TCU Associate Dean of Campus Life Glory Z. Robinson had written her back and promised to "address this situation."

The very next day, on April 29, 2015, Robinson sent Vincent a letter accusing him of violating the student code. He was accused of "infliction of bodily or emotional harm" and "disorderly conduct." He was told to write a letter of apology and propose possible sanctions for himself. He complied.

After receiving his apology, Robinson notified Vincent that she had found him guilty, in part based on his own "written statements."

Unsurprisingly, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has taken issue with virtually all aspects of TCU's handling of the case. Ari Cohn, an attorney and program officer at FIRE, noted that although TCU is a private institution—and thus not bound to follow the First Amendment—the university has made a promise to respect its students' free speech rights. An empty promise, evidently:

"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."

It's worth noting that as far as FIRE can tell, none of the people who complained about Vincent's comments were actually TCU students. But even if they had been, it's grossly inappropriate for administrators to pretend that the use of crass language on the internet is equivalent to disorderly conduct.

Equally galling is Robinson's complete lack of respect for due process. It looks like she not only suspended him without a hearing, she entrapped him by demanding that he apologize.

FIRE has vowed to use "all resources at our disposal" if TCU does not immediately drop Vincent's punishment.

I should add that I personally find Vincent's remarks distasteful. But speech is sometimes nasty—and even nasty speech can serve a productive role in dialogue on college campuses. Challenging Vincent's views of Muslims could in fact be a useful exercise for all. But formally punishing him is an act of pure censorship that puts everyone's rights in danger.