College student punished for Facebook post sues St. Augustine's

NORTH CAROLINA — On May 2, a day after his peers walked across a stage andwere recognized for completing their degree programs, Roman Caple drove toSt. Augustine College’s administration building. He was stopped at the security booth where acampus police officer handed him his graduation regalia and his degree throughhis car window. He signed that he received them and was told to turn around andleave campus.

It wasn’t how Caple says the school promised him he wouldgraduate if he completed his degree requirements.

Now he has filed a lawsuit against the college allegingbreach of contract, negligence, and intentional emotionaldistress and seeking more than $10,000 in damages and a full-scale graduationceremony.

In a complaint filed with a state court July 8, Caple’sattorney argues that St. Augustine’s College wrongfully punished Caple for acomment he posted on the college’s Facebook page after a tornado ripped throughRaleigh, North Carolina, where the school is located.

The April 16 storm caused the school to temporarily closeand students spent days without power.

Two days after the violent weather, the college announced onits Facebook page that it was reopening, though some students still had noelectricity.

The school’s choice to reopen sparked outrage from somestudents and the negative response prompted college administrators to hold atown hall meeting.

Caple, then a senior at the college, posted a comment on thecollege’s Facebook wall encouraging peers to attend the meeting.

The post read: “Here it go!!! Students come correct, beprepared, and have supporting documents to back up your arguments bcuz SAC willcome hard!!!! That is all.”

A week later, Caple received a letter from Dr. Eric Jackson,vice president for student development and services at St. Augustine’s,calling his post a “negative social media exchange,” and banning him forcommencement activities.

On April 28 Caple and his mother spoke with Jackson aboutthe college’s punishment. During the meeting, Jackson said the college’sdecision was final.

Caple asked to receive his graduation cap and gown beforeMay 2 because he had fully paid for them and planned to take photographs andhold a private celebration with his family while wearing them.

Jackson said that Dr. Leon Scott, executive vice presidentat the college, had Caple’s regalia. Later that day, Scott, accompanied bycampus police chief George Boykin, refused to give Caple his regalia prior toMay 2.

Caple did not graduate and his name was not called at theMay 1 ceremony.

Since then Caple’s story was picked up by local mediaoutlets. He contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, acivil liberties advocacy group that connected Caple with Durham-based attorneyBrandon S. Atwater.

Caple’s lawsuit alleges that the college violated promisesin its own student handbook by removing him from graduation, and clauses in itsstudent rights document by punishing him for his Facebook post.

One of the college’s documents, Students Rights and Responsibilities, provides that, “students arefree to… discuss, and take other lawful action respecting any matter, whichdirectly or indirectly concerns or affects them, subject only to reasonabletime, place and manner considerations.”

The same document states that students are “freeindividually and collectively to express their views on institutional policyand on matters of interest to the student body.”

The student handbook states “candidates for graduation areexpected to participate in all commencement exercises.”

FIRE inquired into the school’s choice to ban Caple despiteits own rules and regulations. Counsel for the college told FIRE that thecollege had “legitimate reasons” for Caple’s exclusion.

In a press release in response to several articles aboutCaple’s punishment a college spokeswoman said because Caple was a studentliving off campus during the major storm his comment was intended to only “fuelan already tense situation.”

The press release said that throughout Caple’s collegiatecareer “there were more incidents involving Mr. Caple that factored into theCollege’s decision.”

The release did not specify any of those incidents, allegingthe confidentiality of those instances according to the Family Education Rightsand Privacy Act.

“We hold private colleges and religious colleges like St.Augustine’s to their own standards when it comes to freedom of speech andfreedom of expression. St. Augustine promises freedom of speech to itsstudents in its documents. It also promises to keep an open forum fordiscussion and debate,” Robert Shibley, senior vice president of FIRE said.

“The idea that kind of request, online or not, could beconsidered disruptive or chaotic by any university really goes against everythinga university is supposed to stand for.”

St. Augustine’s status as a private university means thatstudents are not guaranteed First Amendment rights while on campus. However,Atwater said St. Augustine’s extended Caple the freedom to write the Facebookwall post through its own free expression clauses.

“We are not basing this on the Constitution, we are basingthis on breach of contract based on the student handbook and the student rightsand responsibilities,” Atwater said. “We are saying that the promises andrepresentations they made to him establish a contract.”

The lawsuit seeks a court declaration that Caple’scontractual rights were violated and punitive damages in excess of $10,000.

He is also asking for a personal commencement ceremony andreception, “complete with a program, distinguished speaker, orchestra, and allother customary pomp and circumstance.”

Counsel for the college did not return messages seekingcomment by press time.