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Free Speech

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

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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.

NEXT: Chief Justice Roberts, and Justice Sotomayor and Gorsuch Release Statements About #Maskgate

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  1. Was he upset about being accused of being a sex offender or of being a Canadian?

    #Spike Milligan
    #Filthy Irish Pervert
    #I'm not Irish!

    1. Feminist got Karened. Ask a rude question, the cops are called.
      This seems sad and ridiculous. But all PC is case. The reason for this university behavior is to avoid ruinous litigation.

      1. Of course, reality does not matter. Was he or was he not a registered sex offender? She had a duty to Google. She should be sanctioned for her failure to Google.

  2. "Accusing someone of something that has no validity, especially being on a sex offender list can harm one's mental health and safety..."

    Probably a lot less so than accusing someone of something that is valid. If he really was a sex offender, having everybody talking about it would be terrible for his mental health, I'm sure.

  3. Syracuse University is a private institution with a right to its own rules of comity. With regard to a question of that sort, my rule of comity would be you only get to ask it if you already have near-proof that it is true. For instance, I would make an exception in the instance of two identically-named people, with the other one the culprit. Otherwise, it becomes a question with unlimited potential to destabilize a shared sense of community.

    I would take it farther, and insist the same rule be applied to public universities as well. But I understand the doctrinaire opposition that would arouse—none of which would have a bit of light to shed on the substance of the rule, or with regard to its salutary effect.

    1. We are all shocked to see which side you landed on this one.

      1. Smirk. And of course later he'll lie and claim he supports speech.

        I know it's futile to engage with him, but I do want to point out that his whole approach is wrongheaded. He speaks of the "salutary effect" of his proposal. But (as Roberts explained in the Stevens case) that's not the way it works. The First Amendment means that we don't do an individualized balancing test of the good against the harm of specific speech or specific types of speech. That balancing was already done, centuries ago, and it came down in favor of speech, not censorship.

        Cost benefit analysis is what rulemakers get to do when we're not discussing core constitutional rights like speech.

        1. Nieporent, you okay with an organized campaign to invade a campus, public or private, and target selected Black males with made-up, "questions," which imply links to heinous crimes? Maybe keep it going all year?

          Please don't tell me it would be bad to do it. Tell me whether you see a 1A right to do it—and a university administration powerless to stop it, because, hey, those questioners have rights.

          And if you can do that on a private university campus, and it's a good thing to do it, because rights, how is that any different than doing it in some private law firm's lobby, elevators, or meeting room? How about just on the sidewalk outside? Or maybe accosting the firm's Black lawyers with, "questions," on the steps of the courthouse, or on the sidewalks outside their homes? Might as well see if their wives want to answer too, right? Or how about their college-age kids, back on campus, confronted by, "questions," whether lawyer dad is linked to heinous crimes—all made up and totally false, mind you? That's okay, right? Totally good 1A fun?

          1. You're great at proposing absurd hypotheticals as justification for pre-emptively restricting speech.

      2. Noscitur, when I was a small-time newspaper publisher, I somehow never concluded I was being censored by libel laws. There were stories I was pretty sure of, but which never got published because they needed evidence good enough to hold up in court, which I did not quite have.

        That did not bother me. In fact, I thought the libel laws worked as important bulwarks protecting press freedom, holding at bay the howling mobs. I never thought press freedom would be worth a dime if the public hated it. I also thought those laws were protecting me, from consequences of a low-probability/high-stakes mistake inflicted on the newspaper's reputation.

        And by the way, my newspaper maintained a reputation for investigative journalism, probably more so than any other in the state.

        Do you really think this is just a two-sided argument, all virtue and principle on one side, and evil censoriousness on the other? Really? You think press freedom is that simple?

  4. From Fires letter they say that the student was not accused of being a sex offender, but the quoted excerpt does say he was accused of being a sex offender. How is that discrepancy resolved?

    Also the incident was described as an altercation, that description reminds me of the countless 'Karen" videos that show up on twitter or the ones of people accosting diners with various "anti-racist" or "anti-Trump" slogans.

    Does the video mentioned have sound that can be discerned?

    1. Interesting what it reminds you of. It reminds me of the countless "Karen" videos of anti-vaxx nuts and pro-Trump nuts (okay, significant overlap there) accosting normal people with various "pro-idiot" slogans.

      I guess water finds its own level.

  5. But Syracuse's ban on "conduct, whether physical, electronic, oral, written or video, which threatens the mental health … of anyone"

    So telling Joe Biden that there actually is inflation is a violation?

    1. > So telling Joe Biden that there actually is inflation is a violation?

      His dementia has progressed to the point that he wouldn't understand.

  6. Do we have any evidence beyond the claim in the accusatory letter that the individual was not, in fact, a sex offender?

    "Are you that sex offender from Canada?"

    "No, I am not!"

    "Oh, sorry, eh?"

  7. So asking someone if they are an offender is not accusing them of being one? When not getting an answer is grounds to continue harassing the person. Sounds like she was in fact making an accusation and FIRE is just ignoring the evidence.

    1. FIRE is being very disingenuous here. I’m also not sure why they believe conflating such different categories of speech helps their case.

    2. So asking someone if they are an offender is not accusing them of being one?

      Well, strictly speaking, if we're speaking the English language, then no.

      "Are you X?" is a question. "You are X" is an accusation.

      Unlike in some languages, the order of words in English changes the meaning.

  8. Well, is he a sex offender? merely offended, or both.

  9. Selectively miffed,
    the UCLA law prof
    is nipping ankles

    Censorship-shackled
    schools have nothing to fear, though,
    if conservative

    They'll impose speech codes,
    mock academic freedom,
    teach clinger nonsense

    with nary a peep
    at Volokh Conspiracy;
    clingers gonna cling

  10. What's really puzzling is why there are no adults at all involved on any side of this, even though presumably everyone is over 18. The punished student could've walked away if she didn't like being around the guy. The guy could have just ignored her. And when the complaint was filed the school could have said, "Why the hell are people who are allegedly adults tattling on a non-incident that occurred off campus? Stop wasting our time."

  11. Did someone with a college degree write that gobbledygook finding?

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