This article was re-posted with permission from Syracuse University’s website.
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.
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.
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.
Our Law School has long-standing rules of conduct that are consistent with the expectations in the legal profession. 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.
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. 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.
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
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.