Syracuse University’s commitment to free speech questioned following campus TV controversy

A faculty panel at Syracuse University Nov. 30 partially overturned Chancellor Nancy Cantor’s decision to disband the school’s student-run television station.

Cantor disbanded HillTV in October after some students expressed outrage over an entertainment show modeled after “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” called “Over the Hill.” As reported in The Daily Orange, Syracuse’s student newspaper, the show included segments about “smelly Indian kids,” jokes about mentally retarded people and Cantor’s desire for “thick black sausage.”

But Cantor’s move has created a “bitter, emotional, very divided” debate on campus pitting free speech advocates against those who support Cantor’s decision, said journalism professor Charlotte Grimes.

Instead of disbanding the station, the panel said it could begin airing shows in February provided station managers fulfill a number of restructuring requirements, include creating a “Committee on Cultural Competence” that will “assist the organization with matters of content, perspective and tone,” according to the panel’s decision.

Some students say the chancellor’s action and some provisions in the panel’s decision may chill unpopular viewpoints on campus.

“Those sorts of boards can quickly become censorship boards,” Grimes said. “That’s a terrific danger, particularly on a college campus where the administration feels entitled to interfere with student media.”

In an interview with the Student Press Law Center, Cantor said she did not censor the TV station, but that she was merely enforcing the university’s conduct code. The faculty panel upheld Cantor’s determination that the TV station violated the conduct code because its material “threatened the mental health and safety of individuals and groups on campus,” according to the decision.

But many at Syracuse, particularly in the Newhouse School, said Cantor overreacted.

“Talk about a paternalistic, improper role for a chancellor of a university,” said Joel Kaplan, associate dean for graduate studies and a professor in the Newhouse School.

“We met with her right before she decided to do this and told her to ‘combat speech with more speech, don’t treat them like they are in high school,'” Kaplan said. “It was a raw display of power. Why not just let the students work it out?”

SPLC View: Because Syracuse is a private university, administrators there do not have the same constitutional limitations in censoring student media that are found at public institutions. Still, for an school widely recognized as having one of the more prestigious journalism programs in the country, one would hope the university administration might understand the importance of the values embodied in the First Amendment. The simple fact is this: the egregious censorship of the student television station at Syracuse (reminiscent of the behavior of repressive governments around the world) would never be permissible at a public college or university. Prospective students considering Syracuse might be well served to rethink their options (and let university admissions officials know what they have done). Minority viewpoints will never be safe on a campus where the administration believes the appropriate response to troubling expression is to censor it. 


For more information: See the SPLC’s full story on the Syracuse controversy, which includes links to clips from “Over the Hill,” at: