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Oswego State has become the center of a national freedom of speech debate after threatening to suspend a journalism exchange student for three emails he sent out on Oct. 17.
President Deborah Stanley sent a letter to Alex Myers on Oct. 18, which said he was suspended for dishonesty and disruptive behavior. The latter charge was later dropped. Stanley said the administration did not consider a letter they received in support of Myers from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization Myers contacted after receiving notification of his suspension.
Oswego State has received backlash as a result of the incident from its own academic community and the situation has garnered international feedback after going viral and causing widespread attention.
Myers, a student from Charles Sturt University in Australia, used email to contact sources for a profile article about Oswego State hockey coach Ed Gosek. The profile was a class assignment for a journalism class called Advanced Newswriting and Reporting, taught by adjunct instructor Mike Grogan, a veteran journalist teaching his first semester at Oswego State.
Grogan assigned his students to write a feature story about a public figure of their choice. Due to his interest in sports journalism, Myers chose to write about Gosek.
Myers sent out emails to coaches of three area hockey teams asking their thoughts about Gosek. He introduced himself with a head that read: “My name is Alex Myers, I work for the Office of Public Affairs at SUNY Oswego.” Myers was, in fact, an intern in the Office of Public Affairs, but he was gathering information for a class assignment, not for the college’s official information outlet.
Myers asked rival coaches three questions:
He closed the email by saying, “Be as forthcoming as you like, what you say about Mr. Gosek does not have to be positive.”
After the emails were sent out, Myers received a response from Cornell coach Michael Schafer, who said he found the last line of Myers’ email offensive. After apologizing to Schafer, Myers responded by saying he only wanted to be sure the coach understood he was not writing a “puff piece.”
The next evening, Myers received the letter from Stanley, dated Oct. 18, stating that he was being suspended and would have to leave campus. The letter, a standard form letter, ordered Myers to remove himself and his belongings from campus by 6 p.m. the next day.
“I didn’t feel that my mistake warranted suspension. [It was] like an eviction from where I was living,” Myers said. “I don’t know if I could say it was over the top, but it was definitely troubling.”
It was following receiving the letter that Myers contacted the organization FIRE after learning of it from a friend. The organization gives students and faculty a place to take their concerns about possible violations of their rights, according to Peter Bonilla, the associate director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program.
“It certainly was an extreme reaction [from Oswego State], given the content of his email and how clearly they didn’t constitute any of the kinds of unprotected speech alleged,” Bonilla said. “I won’t speculate on why Oswego State reacted the way it did, but I can say that it’s very common for universities to punish speech that is clearly protected.”
After looking over the case Myers sent, FIRE personnel decided to get involved and sent their findings to Oswego State administrators. But according to Stanley, the case is being handled internally and FIRE’s input had no effect on the outcome.
“[FIRE] sent a letter at some point, but it is not something we generally pay that much attention to,” Stanley said. “We were concerned all along that things be handled correctly, and we did correct things as we went along. Those were totally internal processes.”
Stanley released an email to the entire Oswego State community Tuesday addressing the case. The email reassured students that their First Amendment rights were among the most important things to the administration. According to the Julie Blissert, Director of Public Affairs, the school is standing by what Stanley said in the email.
Shortly after receiving the letter from Stanley, Myers learned he was allowed to stay on campus for an extended period of time. He said he had applied to Dean of Students James Scharfenberger for the extension. After his extension expired, he had to repeat the appeals process. The Office of Judicial Affairs reviewed his case and the charge of disruptive behavior was dropped. The dishonesty charge stood. As his punishment, Myers lost his internship with the Office of Public Affairs, and must now write an apology letter to coach Gosek and complete an educational assignment.
“Because of that I’ll probably fail on my record back home, and I’ll have to do another semester,” Myers said of losing his internship. “I would have graduated this semester if not for that subject.”
FIRE published the case on its website and it spread to Gawker, The Huffington Post and multiple other websites. The case has gained national attention and has even reached Myers’s home country, Australia. It has especially resonated with Oswego State students, alumni and faculty.
Dr. John Kares Smith of the communications studies department disagrees with the way the administration handled the incident. After Stanley sent out her email defending Oswego State’s decisions, Smith replied to Stanley with an email of his own. He was appreciative of Stanley releasing the statement, but was left with unanswered questions:
“As a Judicial Affairs Advisor for many years, I have served as an Advisor to students successfully accused of hate crimes, sexual assaults, cheating of various kinds, etc., and none of them were immediately suspended. Most left for a semester, perhaps two, and then returned to finish their educations. This kind of suspension is usually reserved for very dangerous students…often armed with guns, knives, etc., and a danger to the society and themselves. Mr. Myers is none of those things, is he? And, frankly, since your suspension was immediately withdrawn I suspect that you may have had second thoughts about it.”
Along with Smith, other faculty members, alumni and students have rallied around him and given him support.
“People that I don’t even know have sent me messages on Facebook just supporting me, which has been great,” Myers said. “Everyone in Hart Hall has been good to me. Students from some of my classes have actually emailed me and got behind me too, which has been great.”
Myers never expected the issue to grow to this extent. When the article was picked up by Gawker, it opened his eyes to the intensity of the situation.
“This issue has been getting kind of crazy,” Myers said. “It has 50,000 views by the time I saw it. All these other organizations had picked up the story, and it’s actually gone back to Australia too. It is kind of embarrassing to have my biggest error over my university career to be broadcasted nationally.”
Myers said this experience has tested his confidence as a reporter.
“It’s definitely tarnished journalism for me,” Myers said. “I was unsure about whether I was suitable for journalism prior to all this. This hasn’t really helped my view on the field, so I’m not 100 percent sure if I’ll continue that career path or if I’ll go into something else.”
The case has led to concerns about the protection of free speech on campus. Stanley said that Oswego State fully supports freedom of speech.
“The campus is vigilant about providing free speech. There just is no learning without the building block of free speech,” Stanley said. “You have to be able to discuss ideas, especially ideas that may not be palatable to everyone. And you also have to be able to discuss them in an atmosphere that is conducive to skepticism. People have to be able to challenge ideas in a way that is protected. That is something we fundamentally understand on this campus. There is no way that we would deliberately close down speech.”
The story has grown beyond the Oswego State campus, with other schools and media organizations reporting on it. Much criticism has come along with these reports for both sides of the situation. According to Stanley, members of the administration have taken the criticism to heart and will admit to any mistakes they have made.
“We would be remiss if we dismissed it [talking about the criticism] or were so defensive about what we do, that we could never examine ourselves in light of what really happens to individuals, to principles, in the way we apply processes and even if the intent is good sometimes the outcome is not what you expect it to be,” Stanley said. “I feel heart sick over the fact that the institution is being viewed this way and that any individual would have suffered, on all sides. I do know that none of this was about speech.”
This is the first case of its kind for the school, according to Stanley, and they are taking the criticism seriously so they are not misjudged on it in the future.