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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!