The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

"Syracuse Punishes Student for Asking Man at Party if He's a Canadian Sex Offender"


From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

She'd heard rumors that the guy at the party had a history of problematic behavior toward women. So Syracuse University freshman Samantha Jones went right up to him and asked: Was he a registered sex offender?

Now, Syracuse is enforcing its ban on causing "mental harm" to punish the 18-year-old biology student for her question….

He reported the incident to campus police, who referred the matter to Syracuse's Office of Community Standards. Last month, the University Conduct Board found Jones responsible for violating a ban on "[c]onduct, whether physical, electronic, oral, written or video, which threatens the mental health, physical health, or safety of anyone." Jones has since been placed on disciplinary probation and is required to attend "Decision-Making" and "Conflict Coaching" workshops.

"Accusing someone of something that has no validity, especially being on a sex offender list can harm one's mental health and safety," wrote Syracuse administrator Sheriah Dixon in a December memo detailing Jones' formal punishment. The problem with this assessment? Jones didn't accuse the man of anything. The Conduct Board's own findings conclude plainly that all Jones did was seek clarification about rumors.

Here's the key excerpt from those findings:

For FIRE's letter to Syracuse, see here. My view is that the law and university policy could generally prohibit continuing to talk directly to a person once the person tells you to stop, whatever the topic of the speech might be; we see that reflected in some telephone harassment statutes and similar rules (see Part I.A of this article for more).

But Syracuse's ban on "conduct, whether physical, electronic, oral, written or video, which threatens the mental health … of anyone" is not such a policy. It doesn't limit itself to speech to a person (it could easily cover speech about a person). It doesn't indicate that it imposes this sort of "stop talking to me" rule. And is more generally vague and overbroad.

Syracuse is a private university, and thus not bound by First Amendment rules (though it is bound by a New York law that bars "arbitrary and capricious" private university decisions). But given Syracuse's "commit[ment] to … freedom of expression," I think it's rightly faulted for having such a vague and broad rule, and for applying it the way it has here.