After receiving “heavy-handed” university sanctions without a hearing for Facebook posts that he didn’t write, George “Trey” Barnett is taking his case to court.
The former University of Tulsa student filed a lawsuit on Jan. 13 against the university, claiming the institution was negligent when it conducted an investigation into Barnett’s alleged violations of the school’s harassment policy. The lawsuit also claims the university ignored Barnett’s due process rights when school administrators did not allow Barnett to defend himself in a hearing.
The university suspended Barnett in October 2014, after a faculty member filed a harassment complaint related to Facebook posts authored by Barnett’s then-fiancé, now-husband Christopher Mangum, who was not a student at the university.
“The investigation performed by TU was reckless and the conduct following the investigation was nothing short of extreme and outrageous,” Barnett’s suit claims.
The lawsuit alleges a breach of contract from the university and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Barnett is asking for $75,000 in damages.
Throughout 2014, Mangum posted a number of allegedly defamatory statements on his personal Facebook about a number of people in the University of Tulsa’s theatre department. The posts make derogatory comments about a student’s weight and allege that a professor was having an affair, according to a report by The Tulsa World. While Barnett did not author the posts, Mangum did tag him in the posts, which caused the messages to appear on Barnett’s Facebook wall.
Tulsa Senior Vice Provost Winona Tanaka suspended Barnett from certain activities and classes on Sept. 30, 2014, according to the lawsuit. Then, Theatre Department Chair Susan Barrett filed a complaint stating that Barnett violated the school’s harassment policy, according to the lawsuit.
“Barrett knew that any postings which could be construed as offensive were authored by Mangum but nevertheless accused Barnett of the harassment,” the lawsuit states. “Upon information and belief, since she had no recourse against non-student Mangum and his comments about how she ran the theater department, Barrett decided to punish Barnett by accusing him of the harassment instead.”
In response to the complaint, Mangum submitted an affidavit acknowledging that he wrote the posts while Barnett denied authoring the Facebook posts, according to the lawsuit. On Oct. 24, Tanaka suspended Barnett for violation of the harassment policy, including a breach of the confidentiality notice for sharing information on the case with Mangum.
The suspension permanently prevented Barnett from majoring or minoring in theatre at the university and barred him from taking any classes in the theatre department. Also as part of the sanctions, Barnett’s transcript was marked as “suspended/disciplinary probation-misconduct.” The sanctions were issued less than two months before Barnett’s intended graduation.
In the university’s final decision on Barnett’s appeal, released on Jan. 9, 2015, Tanaka was not found to be at fault, according to the lawsuit.
Barnett had shared his story with the Tulsa student newspaper, The Collegian, in February. Student editors decided to run a story on Barnett’s disciplinary process, despite receiving perceived threats from university officials that they too might be in violation of university policies if they reported on any confidential information.
According to the lawsuit, Barnett did not receive a number of rights outlined in the university’s student code of conduct, including the ability to question his accusers and present relevant information at a hearing. The lawsuit also argues that the school’s investigation into the allegations ignored witness testimony and credible evidence that proved Barnett was not responsible for breaking the harassment policy.
“Barnett is forced to deal with the aftermath of TU’s actions on a daily basis,” the lawsuit claims. “He has been ostracized from his friends and faculty with whom he formed lasting relationships and bonds.”