FIRE finds Syracuse University creating prohibitions against “threatening mental health”—even with a single remark

January 20, 2022 • 12:45 pm

I’ve heard of a lot of conventional universities trying to truncate freedom of speech, but not in such a draconian and ambiguous fashion as Syracuse University in New York. Syracuse has previously received the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) yellow-light rating, which means that the school has restrictions of expression that would be illegal at public universities(Syracuse is a private school.) However, within Syracuse’s free-speech policy is a sub-policy on nonsexual harassment that prohibits the following, all of which is reasonable and indeed, considered unprotected “speech” by the courts:

Harassment is defined at the University as unwelcome conduct or speech directed at an individual or group of individuals, based on a Protected Category, which is so severe or pervasive that it unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, terms of employment, educational program participation, or it creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment for study, work, or social living. To qualify as Harassment under this policy, the speech or conduct must be both viewed by the listener(s) as Harassment, and be objectively severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would agree that the speech or conduct constitutes Harassment.In determining whether reported speech or conduct qualifies as Harassment under this policy, the University will consider all circumstances surrounding the reported incident(s), including, without limitation, the frequency, location, severity, context, and nature of the speech or conduct, including whether the speech or conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, rather than a mere offensive remark. The University will also consider the intent of the speaker(s).

Now “intent” is not really something that one can adjudicate, and doesn’t belong here, but the rest of the policy is not only reasonable, but shared by both private and public universities. Note that the violations have to be based on a “protected category”, which I don’t think is necessary because anyone can be subject to harassment that can constitute an “intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.” But the incidents have to be more that one-off statements, even to members of a “protected class” (I’m not sure what Syracuse considers to be a “protected class”).

However you construe harassment, though, it doesn’t hold in the case described below.

What happened is that Syracuse freshman biology major Samantha Jones was at a party, and there saw a guy who was rumored to have “a history of problematic behavior toward women.” Jones went up to the guy and asked him flat out if he was a registered sex offender.

Granted, this is not the best way to get to know someone, and of course you can always look up online whether someone’s a registered sex offender. But this guy was Canadian, and I’m not sure if Americans can ascertain that online. However, the question, though weird, is neither out of line (maybe she would have left the party if the answer was “yes”), nor a violation of free speech, nor harassment.

But Syracuse didn’t see it that way, because they also have a Student Conduct policy that says this (my emphases):

The following behaviors, or attempted behaviors, are considered violations of the Syracuse University Code of Student Conduct:

  1. Physical harm or threat of physical harm to any person or persons, including, but not limited to: assault, sexual abuse, or other forms of physical abuse.
  2. Assistance, participation in, promotion of, or perpetuation of harassment, whether physical, digital, oral, written or video, including any violation of the Syracuse University Anti-Harassment Policy or Sexual Harassment, Abuse, and Assault Prevention Policy. Bias-related incidents, including instances of hate speech, may qualify as harassment under this Code and the University’s Anti-Harassment Policy.
  3. Assistance, participation in, promotion of, or perpetuation of conduct, whether physical, electronic, oral, written or video, which threatens the mental health, physical health, or safety of anyone.

Because of her single question, Ms. Jones was punished by Syracuse. Here’s an extract from the FIRE report:

In October, having heard rumors of past predatory behavior, Jones approached a fellow student at an off-campus party and asked him if he is a registered sex offender in his native country, Canada.

He reported the incident to campus police, who referred the matter to Syracuse’s Office of Community Standards. Last month, the University Conduct Board found Jones responsible for violating a ban on “[c]onduct, whether physical, electronic, oral, written or video, which threatens the mental health, physical health, or safety of anyone.” Jones has since been placed on disciplinary probation and is required to attend “Decision-Making” and “Conflict Coaching” workshops.

“Accusing someone of something that has no validity, especially being on a sex offender list can harm one’s mental health and safety,” wrote Syracuse administrator Sheriah Dixon in a December memo detailing Jones’ formal punishment. The problem with this assessment? Jones didn’t accuse the man of anything. The Conduct Board’s own findings conclude plainly that all Jones did was seek clarification about rumors.

This is ridiculous. If Jones did that repeatedly, it could constitute harassment, but she asked the question once. Note as well that anything can be construed as harming one’s mental health. All you have to do is assert it; you don’t need to prove it, I suspect, by having the victim examined by psychiatrists, though that would be problematic as well.

You simply cannot prosecute someone for single questions or comments that the recipient takes as “harming their mental health.” That would prohibit any question or speech that the recipient finds “offensive”. (The boundary between “offense” and “mental harm” was erased a long time ago.) Finally, there is no restriction that your mental-health-harming statement be aimed directly at the complainant. What if, for example, a Jewish student said they were caused mental harm because somebody said “Burn down Israel” online? That is legal speech so long as it’s not uttered in front of a bunch of Hamas supporters holding Molotov cocktails.

FIRE sent letter to Syracuse that you can see at the link below:

FIRE wrote to Syracuse on Friday, asking the school to reverse its charges against Jones and reminding the institution of its obligations to protect student speech and facilitate sexual abuse reporting. FIRE urges Syracuse to clarify to students that asking questions or reporting sexual misconduct on campus doesn’t constitute “mental harm” — and won’t get them punished.

FIRE warned that this policy would be abused when Syracuse adopted it in 2020. Jones’ case shows how easily the “mental harm” ban ratchets up the stakes of any run-of-the-mill student disagreement. The looming threat of punishment will cast a chill over campus conversations.

Indeed. And it’s clear that Jones, however awkward her question, was trying to find out whether she was in the vicinity of a convicted sexual predator. Since he was Canadian, perhaps there’s no other way she could find out.

This is the result of adopting speech and conduct codes that include “mental harm” as an offense. Now if the offense is deliberate and repeated, yes, it can create a legal violation against harassment, but this is not such a case.

Syracuse should rescind the punishment immediately and apologize to Ms. Jones. At the bottom of the page, if you wish, you can fire off an email to Syracuse (there’s already a boilerplate you can sign) objecting to what it did to Ms. Jones. I’ve said my piece and sent it off.

No college can have a speech or conduct code so severe that it penalizes students whose one-off statements are supposedly damaging to “mental health”. And remember, even if you’re not in college or much interested in this kind of stuff, this kind of mishigass that begins in universities invariably spreads to the wider society. As Andrew Sullivan presciently said, “We’re all on campus now.”

I’ve written; it takes just a second. Imagine if all the readers who felt likewise took 2 minutes to send the email too? They’d get tens of thousands of complaints, and they couldn’t ignore that!

28 thoughts on “FIRE finds Syracuse University creating prohibitions against “threatening mental health”—even with a single remark

  1. I’d bet quite a few donuts that – using the standard they just used – Syracuse’s own employment applications violate their policy and harm the mental health of every applicant.

    Which IMO may be a good way to make them see the error of their ways: tell them that to adhere to their own policy, they can no longer ask job applicants if they are felons or sex offenders.

  2. What is not revealed in this post and is perhaps not known is whether or not the man was actually a sex offender. If he was not, the asking of this question could ruin the man’s life. The incident took place at a party where perhaps her question was overheard by others. Or perhaps, if he responded in the negative, she may have gone over to a friend and said something like “gee, he looks like a sex offender. I don’t know if I believe him.” In other words, the man could be living his life at the campus under a pall of suspicion and innuendo. He may be forced to leave the university. Even if he is a registered sex offender and is no longer offending, the woman could be ruining his life. The man’s mental health may be the least of his problems.

    This woman deserves no apology. Whether or not she should be punished for the act is subject to debate. But, she has no sympathy from me. To excuse her action by saying that she asked a question rather than making a direct accusation is like going up to an Israeli and asking “did you oppress any Palestinians today?” The implication is crystal clear.

    1. Yeah, there were several things about this that made me leery of taking this at face value. As for FIRE reports, aren’t they a bit like VAERS? Anyone can report anything, but does anyone verify it?

    2. “Could .. if .. she may …” in which case — justified.

      I think we have to deal with what happened, not what might have happened. Reverse the sexes, it doesn’t matter. There’s still a dividing line between a single piggish, rude, obnoxious question — and a targeted campaign. The fact that the rule applies equally under your scenario and the most blameless one we can imagine, shows it’s a bad rule.

    3. You are correct. No apology needed. It’s like walking up to a married guy at a party and asking him “if he still beats his wife”. Given the surroundings and the circumstances, nothing good will come out of it, only bad.

    4. That ship had already sailed.

      In October, having heard rumors of past predatory behavior, Jones approached a fellow student at an off-campus party

      He already had the pall of suspicion.

  3. Now “intent” is not really something that one can adjudicate, and doesn’t belong here, …

    I’m not so sure. I think humans are pretty good at assessing intent, and it is commonly important (e.g. the difference between murder and manslaughter is intent). So I think that any such process should consider intent, not just impact.

    (This is also important, for example, for people on the ASD spectrum, who can sometimes appear socially clumsy and inappropriate, even if they have no such intent.)

    Also, saying: “And it’s clear that Jones, however awkward her question, was trying to find out whether she was in the vicinity of a convicted sexual predator” is implying that intent is relevant. So is: “… if the offense is deliberate and repeated …”.

    1. It was a one-on-one question at a party. An informal setting, not a classroom. Didn’t follow him around the party demanding an answer. Didn’t lay hands on him. Didn’t block him from leaving. Didn’t gather several friends to join her to intimidate him.

      This wasn’t a confrontation. His safety was not threatened. And I’m sending a letter.

  4. The US could modernise its law regards the public offender list. Perhaps advance towards pillory on the market place (Walmart parking lot?) or tar and feathers. Accusing someone of being a sex predator based on “rumours” should indeed be persecuted and isn’t free speech. Your freedom to swing your fist around ends where someone else’s nose begins. If you think someone commited a crime, or is about to commit a crime, you’d go to the proper authorities. Other than that, the principle in developed countries is that people ought to have a chance after they served their time. If they are considered a serious risk, it’s up to authorities to lock them up away longer, or to keep tabs on them.

  5. I don’t think it reflects well on her, weaponizing her protected female status to raise this question in public to make some point or other. I certainly would never hire her. However the university has no business getting involved in this and they should have told the male student to suck it up. Some people are just mean. Life lesson.
    The preformed e-mail didn’t seem to want to accept a foreign IP address and so I just composed my own, agreeing with the thrust of the FIRE argument.

    There is an old joke:
    Guy in a pub approaches a woman at the bar, says, “Hello, what are you drinking?”
    “To a hotel??!!”, she shouts, annoyed. Bouncer looks over.
    Flustered, guy replies, “Sorry, I don’t underst…”
    “To a MOTEL??!!!, furious this time. Bouncer walks over, about to put the muscle on him, when she interjects.
    “Wait, wait, it’s all a misunderstanding. I’m sorry. I’m a grad student in psychology and I’m doing fieldwork on how people respond to unexpected stressful situations. … I’ll have a Manhattan.” Bouncer edges away from them.
    Short pause, then guy exclaims, “FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS??!!!”

  6. I would just like to say, probably for the forty-second time, that I really hate the use of the word “problematic” in all of these matters. “Problematics” sounds almost like a grade-school level education program to encourage people to understand math better, perhaps analogous to Phonics. To me, problematic speech is walking up to someone and saying, “If a particle is traveling at 99.97165 percent the speed of light, by what factor is its relativistic mas greater than its rest mass?” Or perhaps, “If two trains depart at the same time going in opposite directions along a North-South track at fifty-five and forty-five kilometers per hour respectively, how long before the curvature of the Earth makes their actual directions of travel orthogonal (assuming Earth to be a perfect sphere and that obstacles like oceans, mountains, etc., can be ignored)?”

  7. I’ve been concerned about this for a very long time. It seems that what constitutes harassment depends heavily on the response, or feelings, of the accuser and less on the act itself. This is bad because how individuals respond to a purported act of harassment is, well, individual. The same act can be interpreted as harassment by one person but as harmless flirtation by another. It helps that the roolz require that “that a reasonable person would agree that the speech or conduct constitutes Harassment,” but it still seems wrong to me that it’s not the act itself that determines what counts as harassment but, rather, it’s the complainant’s perception that is the determining factor. That puts far too much power in the hands of the accuser, in my view.

  8. FIRE’s letter is excellent, especially the paragraphs dealing with a) the implications for a student reporting an incident of sexual assault in which the accusation alone “harms” the accused and b) the “harm” that might result from Syracuse conducting its own inquiry into a student such as Ms Jones.

  9. And it’s clear that Jones, however awkward her question, was trying to find out whether she was in the vicinity of a convicted sexual predator.

    Really? She asked him if he is a registered sex offender — a question that presupposes that his name appears on a registry. The entire point of such registries is that they can be checked — likely with a couple of keystrokes on Ms. Jones’s cell phone had she given it a try.

    Now, I don’t think this one incident constitutes actionable harassment — any more than had he turned to her and said, “I dunno. Is it true you pulled a train in the freshman dorm?”

    Both situations seem to me a bit too close to the old LBJ strategy, when he was running in a primary against a respected local pig farmer, of spreading a rumor that his opponent had had carnal knowledge of his sows. “Is it true?” asked one of Johnson’s aides. “Who knows? But let’s make the bastard deny it.”

    I don’t think Ms. Jones should have been cited for harassment, much less punished. But I don’t think I’ll be sending an email demanding she receive an apology either.

    1. I think they both should have been ignored. Every questionable interaction should not require a police report or intervention by the administration.

    2. “I don’t think Ms. Jones should have been cited for harassment, much less punished. But I don’t think I’ll be sending an email demanding she receive an apology either.”


      I wonder if the gentleman said yes or no to the accusatory question. Does one owe an answer to any and every (impertinent, fatuous) question another presumes to pose? Apparently, anything must be true if it pops into one’s mind. (Or, as Lyndon Johnson said about being President: “It’s like being a mule out in a hailstorm; one has to stand there and take it.”) To decline to answer puts one in a less than optimal position. If he is not a “registered sex offender,” surely some intrepid journalist will soon force that information to surface. Is the university not the least bit curious about that?

      Were I in his position, after answering her (in the negative), I’d be hard pressed to resist asking her to name names/sources of these rumors. (Or, like reporters, would she feel entitled to protect her sources?) I can think of a bunch of other impertinent questions to ask her. (Is she herself a registered sex offender?) She is no more entitled to not be asked such questions than anyone else.

      1. She is just as “entitled” to ask a question, as he is to respond “screw you” or “whatevs.”

        He was under no obligation to do or say anything, or even to talk to her. But since his response was not recorded (apparently), maybe he just walked away.

        Which are also options for anyone at a party, as neither of these two were the hosts.

  10. This one is a real rabbit hole situation. At least some of the deatails are available at

    Some things that jumped out to me-
    If the narrative of events as relayed by SU are accurate, She did not just walk up and ask a question. She engaged the boy because she was uncomfortable with his presence, and wanted to get him to leave the party. she and her friends were uncomfortable because of his prior conduct as well as the rumors.
    It was described by the university as an “altercation”, during which the boy asked her to get out of his face, but she continued the altercation. She eventually left, but told people outside the location that there was a boy inside making people feel uncomfortable.

    Other strangeness-
    There is a “no contact order” taken out by another girl on the boy. No details on specifics, though.

    There is a DPS case number, and DPS body cam footage mentioned but not considered. The campus police are referred to as DPS at SU.

    The University specifically did not consider the boy’s past behavior as it was not considered relevant.

    There is a video of the confrontation, and some question about whether the girl said “why,right” or if she instead named a third person, from whom the boy was subject to a no contact order.

    Two witnesses for the girl were seen by the U as having been coached in their testimony.

    At least, the situation is a bit more complicated than someone quietly asking a stranger a sensitive question. Whether the narrative of events provided by the university is accurate is not yet clear.

    I personally think his past history with the girl or her friends might be relevant, particularly is he is actually a sex offender. The Canadian sex offender registry is not a public database. It might not even be available to SU, or even their police department, except through international procedures.
    There have not been details released about what his “past conduct” not considered by the U was, exactly.
    If I were asked to guess on the reality of the situation from the limited data given, and not knowing anyone involved, I would say that the boy has prior issues with girls at the university, which SU felt that they had dealt with, and the conditions of which the boy was probably complying. The girl likely did initiate and continue a public altercation, and tried to inflame others.
    If SU has video of the confrontation, and that video reinforces their version of the events, the FIRE is unlikely to prevail, unless they have information that the boy did pose a threat to those at the party, such as his being a notorious and convicted Canadian cad.

    1. Thanks for the additional info, Max. I was not aware that the Canadian sex offender registry is not a public database. (In the US, each state maintains a sex-offender registry that can be accessed by the public. Also, the US Department of Justice maintains a website by which all such sex registries can be searched, either by the name of the offender or to reveal all sex offenders living within a specific locality. That database can be accessed here.)

      In addition, I should think that the student application for Syracuse U inquires regarding an applicant’s criminal history. If the student in question lied about his criminal history in his application, I should think he would be subject to being expelled. Also, many jurisdictions in the US require that anyone that has been convicted of a sex offense (or even just convicted of a felony) elsewhere register with the local police department if they are going to reside within that jurisdiction for a specified period of time. That appears to be the case with the city of Syracuse. If the student in question is a sex offender and has failed to so register, he would be subject to criminal prosecution for that failure, as well as subject to expulsion from the US.

      1. So given the stakes, it’s plausible that he wouldn’t dare lie. Though since we don’t have felonies in Canada, he might not have twigged that this applied to him if he’d been convicted of sexual assault. (Almost no one is ever convicted of sexual assault, by the way.) If if it was phrased as a “criminal record”, might have been different. “Record of offences” is a prohibited category for discrimination in accommodation and hiring in Canada, though — he might be surprised to find it isn’t in the U.S. But a freshman is pretty young to have done time for sexual assault is is now out, attending university.

        I suspect the only “registry” he belongs to is the gossip and innuendo world of social media that doesn’t care about national borders, convictions, or even complaints. She may have tried to throw him off balance by asking about a “Canadian sex registry” knowing there is no such public thing but also knowing that there has been gossip about “problematic” sexual encounters. After all, never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. That’s what I meant by “weaponizing” her credibility advantage.

      2. All of that absolutely seems sensible. I suppose someone on the Canadian register might be willing to omit such a history in another country, assuming that nobody would find out unless they had a specific reason to search, and were willing to go to the trouble to do so.
        It also could be that the girl with the no contact order either started the rumor out of malice, or discovered that he was on such a list in the process of whatever troubles transpired between the two in the past.
        But I am totally in the realm of speculation.

      3. I should think that the student application for Syracuse U inquires regarding an applicant’s criminal history.

        But then, by it’s own standard, Syracuse is harassing it’s applicants. You can’t ask that of young people, it harms their mental health and safety…the Uni said so themselves!

        It’s quite a….karmic…thought; the administration itself having to take thousands of ‘Decision-making and Conflict Coaching workshops a year, one for each applicant they “harmed their mental health and safety” by asking them “are you a felon.” Could be Greek too. Or even Dante-ish.

  11. Actually if you want outrageous behaviour from a university, this story from Ferris University is more interesting. Essentially professor uses a humerous video skit to introduce students to his courses. Someone selectively edited the skit to remove context (Which as every progressive knows is ‘irrelevant’.) and posted it to the internet. Cue outraged twitter mob and his job is threatened by the university. The punchline, the university had been praising the same skit since at least 2016.

    Here is the initial report.

    And the follow up:

    1. The punchline, the university had been praising the same skit since at least 2016.

      The coward’s motto: let no flip go unflopped, as long as it’s convenient.

  12. Mention of the two words “Diversity Statement”, particularly in connection with employment or grant awards, afflicts me with an episode of dyspepsia and flatus. This could be viewed as threatening the mental health, physical health, or safety of both myself and those around me. But I am not a student at Syracuse University, so this problem will not be referred their Office of Community Standards.

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