NEW YORK — In what appears to be an ongoing battle for free expression at Syracuse University, four first-year students were disciplined last semester and threatened with expulsion after creating a Facebook.com group that criticized their writing instructor. The incident follows an October dispute over content on the university’s student-run television station.
The Daily Orange, the student newspaper at Syracuse, published an account Wednesday of the disciplinary actions taken against the students for setting up an online group called, “Clearly Rachel doesn’t know what she’s doing ever.”
Facebook.com is an online networking site that connects people at schools. Students can post photos and profiles of themselves on the site, and can also create interest groups and invite other students to join.
After the complaint of the instructor, Rachel Collins, was referred to Syracuse’s Office of Judicial Affairs, the students were dismissed from the writing course and ordered to write letters of apology and create educational fliers that advertise the dangers of Facebook.
The Office of Judicial Affairs declined to comment on the incident, but its director, Juanita Perez Williams, issued a statement Thursday that said, “At Syracuse University, facebook.com is no different from other means of communication that can be deemed harassing or threatening.”
The students who created the Facebook group said it was “stupid and immature” and that the posted content was “utterly inappropriate” and “grossly profane.” But they also said the situation is a free speech issue, and that it should have been addressed outside the university’s judicial system.
Professors at Syracuse agree, and said the administrators’ response to the online group is “chilling and disheartening.”
Disciplined student says she feels ‘watchful eye everywhere’
The four students were singled out as responsible for the group because they were named as “officers,” with officer titles such as, “I’d rather eat all the hair stuck in the drain of the showers than go to class.” First-year student Amanda Seideman created the group.
Two other officer titles followed a similar format, describing repugnant activities that the students would rather engage in than go to class. One officer title directly referenced the instructor and said, “I’d rather scrape the discharge off your vagina from your yeast infection than go to your class, Rac.”
Madison Alpern was in Collins’ class and was listed as one of the group’s “officers.” She said the only content on the Facebook group site was the officer names and descriptions, although several other students in the class joined the group.
“[The instructor] said she felt threatened and unsafe, which is ridiculous,” Alpern said. “There were no threats. It just said how bad of a teacher she was. It was stupid and hurtful, but it was made as a joke.”
When Williams, the director of judicial affairs, called the four female students into her office, Alpern said Williams threatened to expel them. Alpern said the meeting was “very scary,” and that she regretted offending her instructor.
After the meeting with Williams, Alpern said her roommate, a broadcast journalism student, urged her to view the disciplinary action as a First Amendment issue. Alpern said she had not considered the Facebook group as an example of free speech, but her roommate made a convincing argument.
“You hear about freedom of speech all the time, and then I did think if I actually wanted to make a fight, I could put that up there because I did believe in that,” she said. “I was so apologetic that I didn’t think I could stand up for myself and fight. If it had come down to me being expelled … I would have stood up and said that. I think the other girls would have, too.”
Because Syracuse is a private university, administrators there do not have the same constitutional limitations that are found at public institutions.
At the time of the disciplinary actions, Alpern was already applying to transfer to a different university. Now a first-year student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Alpern said the atmosphere there is noticeably different than at Syracuse.
“[At Syracuse] I was watched more closely, even when I was unaware,” she said. “I felt like they were watching all the time. I felt like they were restricting very heavily.”
Caitlin Womble, who was also disciplined for her involvement in the Facebook group, said she also feels under surveillance at Syracuse. “Lately I have been feeling a watchful eye everywhere,” said Womble, who is still a student at Syracuse.
Womble said she is also concerned about The Daily Orange article published last week about the Facebook group and how it may affect her status with the Office of Judicial Affairs.
Facebook group considered harassing speech
The portion of Syracuse’s code of student conduct that deals with harassment was used as a basis for the disciplinary actions taken against the students, according to Matthew Snyder, director of communications for student affairs. When it comes to harassing speech, Snyder said, the medium matters little.
“Speech that appears on a dormitory hall whiteboard is not regarded any differently than speech that airs on Facebook,” Snyder said. “The rules are the same.”
According to the Syracuse code of conduct, “Harassment, whether physical or verbal, oral or written, which is beyond the bounds of protected free speech, directed at a specific individual(s), easily construed as ‘fighting words,’” is a violation of the code of conduct.
Snyder said he was unable to define “protected free speech” as it is used in the code of conduct. He said he did not know if students could create a Facebook group that criticized their teacher in a more direct way, such as “I do not like the way this professor teaches.”
“[The code of conduct] doesn’t single out one kind of speech that is unacceptable,” Snyder said. “It’s the outcomes of speech that are unacceptable — not the kinds of speech. There’s not a list of 30 words that you can’t use.”
Crude remarks not a reason for limiting expression, professor says
But Syracuse professors said it is difficult to gauge the outcomes of speech that students post on Facebook, and that ideally, there should be as “few restraints as possible” on student speech.
“I can’t imagine anything that’s more a part of college life than complaining about your professor,” said Steve Davis, chair of the newspaper department at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse. “I’m not sure how you can control this or why you would ever try.”
Davis said when critical speech is controlled, it becomes difficult to determine what speech is acceptable. “Are teachers violating the code of conduct when they criticize students,” he said. “What should be done with a Facebook group that has eight comments, four positive and four negative? Who will keep score?
“The signal seems to be, you can say things about teachers as long as it’s complimentary.”
Criticism posted on the Facebook group is not much different than the course evaluations students are asked to fill out at the end of the semester, Davis said. The only difference is that these comments were shared in real time and in a more visible forum, he said.
Journalism professor Charlotte Grimes empathized with Collins, and said for instructors, it is difficult enough to read critical course evaluations in private, let alone on a Web site. But she maintained that when it comes to student speech, she would like to see “as few restraints as possible.”
“I’m a believer that if you’re concerned about speech, my response is more speech not less speech,” Grimes said. “Sometimes we say things rudely and crudely in public that we should have better manners than saying, but that’s still not a reason for limiting expression.”
She said she was also concerned about the way campus authorities became involved so quickly in the situation.
“Whenever we see opinions we don’t like, our response is to go to our authorities and shut it down,” Grimes said. “That’s chilling and disheartening and strikes me as not the way you’d want to conduct relationships.”
A colleague’s perspective
Iain Pollack, a teaching assistant in the writing program and a colleague of Collins’, said he is familiar with Facebook groups that criticize courses and course instructors. Like Collins, Pollack is an English graduate student.
Pollack said there is some tension between TAs who teach required writing classes and undergraduate students who loathe taking them. The Facebook groups students create about teachers and classes, which Pollack has seen before, are “mostly a joke,” and, “most people don’t take them seriously,” he said.
After reviewing the Facebook group made about Collins, Pollack said the comments were “more graphic and disgusting than the type of comments we usually hear about students posting to Facebook and RateMyProfessor[.com],” a site where students can post ratings and opinions about university professors.
Students should be able to write what they want, Pollack said, but they should also understand that TAs in the writing program are young teachers trying to learn how to teach.
“There are plenty of opportunities to give more constructive feedback,” he said. “Those Facebook pages are free speech and should be covered as free speech, but they should be subject to the curbs that are put on free speech.”
Pollack said the comments on the Facebook group about Collins were not criticisms about the instructor’s teaching ability, but “personal attacks.”
If his students had created a similar site about him, Pollack said he would do the same thing Collins did.
The Facebook incident is not the first time administrators at Syracuse, known for its communications school, have punished student speech.
Last October Chancellor Nancy Cantor revoked the status of HillTV, the university’s student-run television station, for airing a show that made light of eating disorders, date rape and lynching, among other issues.
“With free expression comes responsibilities for being a part of a campus community,” Cantor told the Student Press Law Center in December. “We have codes of conduct…. I don’t think it is beyond question to ask people who are in a diverse campus community to abide” by those codes.
Following the decision, more than 60 professors wrote a letter to The Daily Orange condemning the chancellor’s move to shut down the station. The letter said Cantor’s decision “damaged” free speech and free press values as well as diversity values.
In December, a faculty panel partially overturned the chancellor’s decision and said the TV station could resume programming this month if station staff instituted a number of guidelines. Richard Levy, former station manager of HillTV, said the staff submitted revised bylines and a code of broadcasting standards about a month ago to university officials to meet the faculty panel’s demands. The station is still waiting on a response from administrators, he said.
He said he is “very hopeful” that the station soon can resume its broadcasts.
“The irony, of course, is that none of these actions taken by Syracuse would be permissible at a public university,” said SPLC executive director Mark Goodman. “It’s unfortunate that Syracuse seems content to provide a second-class education to its students when it comes to free expression.”
Davis, the journalism professor, said “time will tell” if the station shut-down and the disciplinary actions taken against the student creators of the Facebook group are the beginning of a trend in restrictive responses to student speech.
“There’s a discussion about what is free speech, about how much we can tolerate,” Davis said. “There is full-fledged argument here about that.”
—by Allison Retka, SPLC staff writer
- Syracuse University’s commitment to free speech questioned by professors, students News Flash, 12/6/2005
- Syracuse University head shuts down student TV station News Flash, 10/27/2005