Syracuse Statement Cements School’s Top Spot on ’12 Worst Schools for Free Speech’ List

By January 28, 2011

Yesterday, FIRE placed Syracuse as number one on the list of the 12 Worst Schools for Free Speech that we published on The Huffington Post. Fittingly, on that very day Syracuse cemented its spot on the list by releasing a statement about its persecution of law student Len Audaer–a statement so deceptive and dishonest that we are frankly shocked that Syracuse released it. (For those just tuning in, FIRE has posted an extensive Q&A about the case.)

You can read the entire text of Syracuse’s statement on its own website, but it is so atrocious that the only way to thoroughly address it is to take each point line by line, which I will do below.

Statement from Syracuse University Vice Chancellor and Provost Eric Spina Regarding Law School Student Blog Matter

In October, our Law School received complaints from a number of students alleging that another student had violated the College’s code of conduct by posting false comments about them on a public website. The College of Law has an obligation to investigate any complaint filed by a student, and that investigation is underway.

If the College of Law does indeed have an obligation to investigate “any” complaint filed by a student, that is ridiculous. What if a student complains that a fellow student is using microwave radiation to control his thoughts, which has forced him to wear a tinfoil hat? Is the law school “obligated” to investigate for several months? If so, Syracuse really needs to make some procedural changes. If not, that means the law school has the discretion to choose which complaints it wishes to investigate. This distinction is important because it means that Syracuse is the party that has chosen to make the little-known SUCOLitis blog, the content of which was deliberately made unavailable to search engines like Google, into a national issue.

The content of the website was not as harmless and carefree as some public commentators have suggested, and was not merely making fun of life at a law school. In fact, the blog contained false, mean spirited attacks, by name, against uninvolved, innocent, private individuals. Some examples included the following (note: full profanity appeared on the blog but has been altered here):

· Accusing by name a first-year female student of “mess[ing] around with a couple of guys during orientation;”

· Stating that a named student “looked at [himself] in the full-length mirror while [he] was doing this girl from behind and . . . said to [himself] ‘name’ you’re the f#c*ing man;”

· Stating that a former Student Life staff member was dead, and that she had won the “person I’d most like to hate f#c*” award.

Anyone who reads the blog entries will realize it is not harmless fun, and (contrary to the suggestions of some commentators) is nothing like The Onion, an internet publication that engages in political satire of public figures and public life.

Here’s where the real deception starts: Syracuse is attempting to publicly defend its prosecution of various statements made on a parody blog by completely divorcing them from their context. Syracuse provides three examples from the blog — presumably the worst ones they could find — and asks you to believe that these are serious accusations made by irresponsible parties bent on harassing their fellow students.
For most people of average and (let’s admit it) below average intelligence, these statements contain clues indicating that they just might be meant to be humorous. In order to interpret these statements as serious “attacks,” you must believe that the SUCOLitis blog had a source in the bedroom of a couple having sex who was able to report on what one of the partners said during the sex act, and that some organization had actually established a “person I’d most like to hate f#c*” award. You also have to completely ignore the SUCOLitis blog’s disclaimer statement, which explicitly identifies the pages as parody.

So you have to decide: either “independent” faculty prosecutor Gregory Germain and the entirety of the Syracuse administration are of decidedly subpar intelligence and cannot rationally evaluate a statement, or they do not seriously believe that these posts were meant as “false, mean-spirited attacks” and understand that the blog was an attempt to be humorous. Unfortunately, if you believe the latter, you have to conclude that Syracuse’s statement attempts to mislead the public into thinking the blog was something it was not.
Indeed, once you consider the context, it becomes abundantly clear that Syracuse is attempting to railroad Len Audaer and put one over on the public in the most craven and disgraceful way. You see, unlike Syracuse, FIRE doesn’t ask you to take our word for it when we say that the blog was clearly a parody. In fact, we have posted the whole thing on our website in PDF format (it’s pretty short, as it wasn’t long before fear of Syracuse’s investigation prompted the unnamed authors to shut it down). We suggest you start with the website’s prominent and obvious disclaimer page, which cites The Onion by name and then says this:

SUCOLitis is a satirical publication and not a news blog. No actual news stories appear on the site. The views and opinions purportedly expressed should not be attributed to any persons, living or dead, including those with whom they share names and other descriptive details. SUCOLitis does not show up on search engine results, so don’t give us shit about potential employers. Fan mail, hate mail and requests for redaction of names should be sent to sucolitis@gmail.com

 

So not only did the website specifically say that everything was made up, but the authors also went to the trouble of preventing it from showing up on search engines and even were willing to redact names at the request of those who didn’t want theirs used. Pretty sinister, huh?

Further, as you will quickly see as you read the blog entries, the “false, mean spirited attacks” were accompanied by or included in stories with headlines like “Beer Bong Elected 2L President in Recall Election,” “Class of 2013 Named Most Attractive in History,” “New Chipotle Praised for Spike in 3L Employment,” and “Professors Pump Iron to Survive Apocalypse.” Some of the stories had meaner headlines, the worst of which was probably “Popular Administrator Presumed Dead,” or were more risqué, like “New Program Pairs Stressed 3Ls with Promiscuous 1Ls.” However, in the context of the website, one would have to be both amazingly credulous and (to miss the disclaimer) barely literate to miss the all-important fact that the site was intended as a humorous parody of law school life and that none of the stories had any factual basis. While FIRE has massive disagreements with faculty prosecutor Greg Germain, we very much doubt that he meets either of these criteria. So why is Syracuse persecuting the blog’s authors?

The statement continues:

Reasonable people may disagree about where the line should be drawn between the rights of a speaker and the rights of private individuals who are directly and falsely targeted in that speech for harassment, defamation and humiliation. It is important to recognize, however, that this is not a case of political speech or opinions that someone finds offensive. This is a case involving false attacks directed at private students, faculty and staff on a public website.

This is what we at FIRE refer to as a “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” statement, and yes, we see this tactic from schools all the time. Syracuse would have you believe that the blog was malicious and that it was a vehicle for destroying the reputation of fellow students. Syracuse is hopeful you’ll listen to what it says and that you won’t see the readily apparent “droid,” which in this case is the actual website. In other words, Syracuse hopes that you will just accept its view of the content without checking for yourself. (Convenient that they scared the authors into taking the blog down, right?) This kind of attempt to frame the narrative by ignoring or obscuring readily available contrary evidence is common in political campaigns, but it’s disappointing to see Syracuse stoop to this level. Can we not expect better from an institution that is supposed to be a marketplace of ideas and dedicated to higher learning?

Our Law School has long-standing rules of conduct that are consistent with the expectations in the legal profession.

This is a very elastic standard: “expectations” for the conduct of attorneys working for a private firm may be far different from those governing the conduct of attorneys working as a public defender. Instead of invoking this vague notion of “professionalism”–which is surely as malleable as Syracuse needs it to be–why can’t Syracuse simply adhere to the promise of free expression it has made to its students? Or, for that matter, to its own definitions of harassment?

Every year, the faculty elects one of its law professors to investigate student complaints, in a confidential manner, to determine whether charges against a student should be brought. If the professor brings charges, there is a formal hearing process before three independent faculty members and two students to determine whether a violation of the rules occurred. The process mirrors a judicial process by affording an accused student the right to be represented by counsel, and the right to call and cross-examine witnesses. Once a complaint is filed, the charged student is provided with all of the documentary evidence against him. The process is confidential to protect the charged student’s right to educational privacy under federal law.

OK, fine. This is just a description of the procedure for investigating complaints.

One outside organization has criticized the school for keeping a particular student “completely in the dark” about who are his accusers and what is the nature of the allegations against him, and has previously criticized the faculty prosecutor for performing a two month investigation. These criticisms are not well founded. Investigators do not normally provide information until the investigation is complete and a charge is brought. Any other rule would interfere with the process of investigation. Two months is not a long time for an investigation involving many witnesses and complicated legal issues.

Spoiler alert: the outside organization is FIRE. The funniest thing about this segment is that Syracuse admits it is keeping the student in the dark; it just thinks that, in this case, there’s no problem with doing so. Here’s the thing, though: Syracuse has been hiding behind the argument for some time that no charges have yet been brought–but in practical terms, they have. Len Audaer knows he has been accused by someone, knows he is being investigated, and knows that Syracuse is going to charge him with something (probably harassment) if he doesn’t capitulate and agree to some kind of punitive settlement. What he doesn’t know is who accused him, what exactly he is supposed to have done, and what the actual charge is. Syracuse asserts that telling him this would “interfere with the investigation.” How? This isn’t a grand jury investigation of an accused mobster. It’s an investigation about whether someone made jokes on the Internet. Are they afraid Len is going to kneecap witnesses or something?

The current delay in filing the complaint results from an agreement of the parties while they are engaged in discussions about the issues. Finally, the public should be doubtful of speculation concerning what has been disclosed by the prosecutor to the subject of the investigation in their confidential discussions. One thing is clear, however. If a charge is brought, the law school’s rules require the prosecutor to give the charged student all documentary evidence available to him so that the student can properly prepare his or her defense.

It’s true that the current delay results from negotiation between the parties–negotiation at which Syracuse has been careful to put Audaer at a severe disadvantage, since he has no clear idea what he is supposed to be negotiating to avoid. And while Syracuse is saying that it will give Audaer the evidence against him if he is ultimately charged, pardon me if this doesn’t impress me. Telling someone what the evidence against him is constitutes the bare minimum of human decency in the administration of justice. (You know, due process–that other “long-standing rule[] of conduct that [is] consistent with the expectations in the legal profession.”)

Finally, the Law School has been criticized for seeking to “gag” the press from reporting the case. Once again, the charge broadly misses its mark. The prosecutor has asked the hearing panel to prevent the parties from publicly disclosing the names, and only the names, of the people who were mentioned in the blog or who participate in the case and wish to maintain their privacy. The order is designed to protect the privacy rights of the victims and the integrity of the process from witness intimidation. The prosecutor has also asked the hearing panel to prohibit the parties from publicly releasing partial documents to prevent misrepresenting the facts to the public. There is no attempt to gag the press from reporting on the case, or to gag the parties from commenting on the case, as long as the names of private individuals are not disclosed, and any documents are published one time in their entirety.

Now we come to the part of the statement where Syracuse just gives up trying to tell the truth. FIRE has tackled faculty prosecutor Greg Germain’s proposed gag order at length before on The Torch. Rather than rehash all of that, let me just point out that the gag order would have prevented anyone from supplying any documents or quotes from documents to the media unless the media outlet agreed to print the entire document. Since no media outlet could agree to this simply because of space concerns, this effectively acted as a blanket gag order.
Indeed, Syracuse violated its own proposed gag order terms in this very statement by releasing partial documents (the quotes from the blog) that were used to misrepresent the facts to the public by stripping them of their context!

In sum, Syracuse University places a high value on free speech and due process, but also places a high value on the rights of all of its students to study and learn in an environment free from harassment, intimidation and ridicule.

I think the falsity of the first part of this statement speaks for itself. And if only Syracuse would end its harassment and intimidation of Len Audaer through threats of prosecution that violate the school’s own principles, maybe it could start making some progress on the second.

Schools: Syracuse University Cases: Syracuse University: Disciplinary Investigations of Satirical Law School Blog