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Oswego State was named a top 10 “Worst College for Free Speech in 2013” by the Foundation for Individual Rights through a Huffington Post article in December.
The list, which also included Harvard University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Syracuse University last year, ranked mostly public colleges and universities, but also included private universities that promise students free speech.
“The State University of New York at Oswego (SUNY Oswego) earns its rightful place on this list for nonsensically suspending a student who asked rival hockey coaches for their thoughts about his school’s coach in order to complete a class assignment,” FIRE president Greg Lukianoff wrote in the article.
Oswego State President Deborah Stanley said she was disappointed to hear about the ranking, adding that the student suspension FIRE referred to took place in 2012 and was an “isolated incident.”
“It’s such a misrepresentation of who we are and what we stand for,” Stanley said.
Alex Myers situation
The event described in the list happened in October 2012. Oswego State journalism student Alex Myers, who was at Oswego State through an exchange program from Australia, was suspended over an email he had sent as part of a class assignment.
“Put simply, the Alex Myers case was one of the worst cases of campus censorship and punishment of student expression that we saw in 2013,” Azhar Majeed, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program, said in an email.
Myers contacted three hockey coaches in the Central New York area to ask questions for a feature on men’s hockey coach Ed Gosek.
He identified himself by saying, “My name is Alex Myers, I work for the Office of Public Affairs at SUNY Oswego.” Myers was actually an intern at the time for the Public Affairs office, but the email was for a class and not within his duties as a public affairs intern.
Myers asked the coaches three questions related to their interaction with Gosek, and then signed off by asking the coaches to “Be as forthcoming as you like, what you say about Mr. Gosek does not have to be positive.”
Myers would later say to an offended coach that he was trying to make it clear he wasn’t writing a “puff piece.”
The next night, Myers received a letter from Stanley, dated Oct. 18, stating that he was suspended and that by 6 p.m. he would have to remove himself and his belongings from campus. Myers was charged under the student code of conduct for using campus resources to “defame, harass, intimidate or threaten another individual.”
Shortly after receiving the letter from Stanley, Myers was allowed to stay on campus for an extended period. Myers filed an appeal and eventually the charges of disruptive behavior were dropped and Myers was only charged with misrepresenting himself in the email, for which he had to complete an educational assignment and write an apology letter to Gosek.
FIRE also intervened in that time, writing a letter to Stanley after Myers had contacted them.
“The Myers case does not compare favorably with most other cases in which FIRE has intervened,” Majeed said. “While we are sadly accustomed to seeing universities censor or punish students and faculty for constitutionally protected speech, we were taken aback by SUNY Oswego’s overreaction and overstepping in this matter. It was simply baffling to see a college student suspended and ordered to vacate his campus residence solely because of a sincere email he had sent pursuant to a class assignment.”
Myers told The Oswegonian following the incident that the experience had “tarnished journalism” for him and that his graduation would be delayed as a result of being failed at his internship.
Stanley said in an interview Tuesday that there are changes the school has made since the incident.
“I think our policies needed a brush up,” Stanley said. “I think we were using a process that we felt was appropriate. I do think that we reacted pretty quickly, and that we abridged that policy very quickly so that it would not harm the students.”
In an email to students in the wake of the Myers controversy, Stanley said the school was “in the process of assessing our practices and clarifying guidelines. Moving forward, we have assigned this matter to a group of faculty, students and staff to propose how that might be done.”
While interpreted by many as a committee on free speech, Stanley said the committee actually focused on issues related to the judicial system.
“We didn’t want those things to happen,” Stanley said, referring to the Myers situation. “But they would have happened if the policy just went through the way it was. So we had to make those changes to it.”
The committee, which was chaired by Associate Dean for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Brad Korbesmeyer, began meeting in spring 2013 and eventually made recommendations for wording changes to the code of student conduct.
The changes were reviewed by the President’s Council and then with SUNY legal counsel and instituted in the 2013-2014 online Student Handbook. Julie Blissert, the director of public affairs for Oswego State, said the changes came too late to be included in the print edition, but will be there next year.
The changes were made to provision No. 42, which declares when interim suspension can be used by the school. Stanley described the previous policy as “too broad.”
The changes mostly clarified who can be involved in the decision to use an interim suspension and the reasons such a suspension can be levied.
“Interim suspensions still exist and they exist for a good purpose,” Stanley said. “And that is to prevent any additional harm.”
Majeed said the FIRE ranking was based solely on the incident that happened with Myers, as no further review of the school’s policy factored into the Huffington Post article.
Stanley considers the list a “sound bite” that will be forgotten by the time the next list rolls around.
“There have been really notable schools that held that ranking for, again, isolated incidents,” Stanley said. “Really if you look at some of the incidents, they don’t cause harm and they were not intentional in a certain way. But I don’t think it lasts that long.”
Lou Borrelli, a 1977 graduate and chief development officer of nimbleTV, as well as a board member of the Oswego College Foundation, said he wished the list had considered factors beyond the Myers situation.
“Oswego State produces some of the finest student journalists in the country,” Borrelli said. “The school should be judged based on the achievements of our alumni, not by an isolated incident by a group with an agenda.”
Communication professor John Kares Smith, who wrote a letter to Stanley defending Myers at the time of his suspension, said the ranking was “really kind of scary,” but also questioned the organization’s use of the incident.
“If this is the only incident in recent years,” Kares Smith said. “To come off near the bottom off one incident, I would think that there would have to be other schools.”
A further review of the school’s policy and history, Blissert said, would have revealed a different attitude toward free speech.
“Whenever there is demonstrations on campus or protests, President Stanley has said ‘send them punch and cookies,’ and if it’s in cold weather, make sure they’re all warm,” Blissert said. “In my experience, we’re often more than welcoming of people expressing their opinions.”
While FIRE did not review Oswego State’s policies for the Huffington Post rating, the organization does release an annual “Spotlight on Speech Codes” study, which examines speech code of conducts at universities around the country and rates them on how much they allow for free speech.
The schools are given ratings of either red, yellow or green. A red light ranking means the school has at least one policy that prohibits free speech, a yellow means the school has one policy that could be interpreted as prohibiting free speech and a green means the school’s policies do not threaten expression.
Along with six other SUNYs and 58.6 percent of the campuses studied overall, Oswego State received a red light rating.
Oswego State received its ranking from a policy on racial/ethnic harassment in the faculty and staff handbook. The rules state that Oswego State “prohibits any form of behavior that singles out an individual or group for the purpose of undermining their racial, cultural and religious heritage.”
The school also has four policies that are ranked by FIRE as yellow: two in the Residence Hall Handbook, one in the Student Handbook and one in the student code of conduct. FIRE has a database of its findings on its website.
Protests and demonstrations
Alex Lykins, a senior human development and global international studies major, said the attention brought to Oswego State was bittersweet.
“It’s good that there is attention being drawn to it, because it has definitely been a problem,” said Lykins, who was a founding member of Freedom of Speech Friday and took part in Occupy Oswego. “It’s obviously bitter, because I don’t want to be a part of an institution that’s rated as a worst college for free speech in the United States. No one wants that title.”
Lykins said he experienced varied reactions from administration, police and students, to his efforts to encourage free speech, beginning with Free Speech Friday.
“It started as kind of a joke―like so what if we just walked into the middle of the Quad with a megaphone and opened it up as a forum for free speech,” Lykins said.
With faculty support, the first Free Speech Friday was held in September 2011.
“It was about us going out there and making people comfortable to exercise their freedom of speech rights,” Lykins said.
In November, Lykins was notified by Campus Life that amplified sound was not allowed in the Quad area, where the event was being held. Lykins said he was told that the noise created was disruptive to the students in the library.
“It’s really all about the disruption that amplification can create,” said Kathleen Evans, interim director of Campus Life, about the rule. “As a public institution, but also an educational institution I think the idea of giving students the right to express themselves is very important, and for us to engage in civil conversation about different opinions and views, but it’s important that we create a situation where we are not disrupting what I would call educationally-purposeful activities.”
Lykins said the group complied after they were told about the amplified sound rule, and decided to continue the demonstrations by shouting and performing. The attendance of the events eventually wound down, Lykins said, and Freedom of Speech Friday ended by Spring 2012.
Lykins said they accomplished what they wanted, which was to make students consider their right to free speech. Lykins said he received mixed reactions from students, some who told them they were against the noise and the event’s purpose, and others who supported the message.
Lykins was also involved in Occupy Oswego, which he said was fully respected by University Police and administration.
“We never faced any problems,” Lykins said. “We had nothing but goodwill from the administration. Deborah Stanley actually bought us snacks. She supported that whole-heartedly. We had [UP] come by and they were more concerned with our safety.”
UP Chief John Rossi said officers have yearly training on how to handle protests or demonstrations.
“We are bound by what the State University has, which is a public order policy, and spells out the time, place and manner of when and where a student can protest and we assist them with their protesting and make sure there are no people against the protest who are going to be causing disturbances,” Rossi said.
Rossi said as long as protestors are demonstrating safely and not violating a building’s fire code, UP will not have any problems. He added that he has not seen many protests or demonstrations in his time on campus, describing them as “usually on a smaller scale.”
“There really hasn’t been a lot of issues that have been protested here and that says something about our institution. Back in the ‘70s there were some real, serious protests here and it was like that all around the country,” Rossi said. “We’ve never seen a wave like that.”
Kares Smith also said the campus hasn’t protested often in his 40 years as a a professor.
“This has been, overall, a pretty conservative campus,” Kares Smith said. “This is not a campus where students often have gotten all up in the air about things.”
Lykins said it can be frustrating to see students take this attitude, as he often struggles to get students to even come to events that are of interest to them.
“At this point in time, I don’t know what happened, and why everyone is so complacent,” Lykins said. “Liking something on Facebook, it’s not the same thing.”
Lukianoff concluded his Huffington Post column by saying there is still time for the colleges listed to “do the right thing.”
Majeed explained what FIRE’s leaders believe Oswego State should do.
“SUNY Oswego could improve its public perception by making clear to its students, faculty, alumni, and concerned citizens that it mishandled the Alex Myers case, and that it should never have subjected him to an unconstitutional punishment over speech protected by the First Amendment,” Majeed said. “It would also be helpful for the university to make clear that it will be mindful of First Amendment rights in the future and will not unconstitutionally investigate or punish protected student or faculty expression.”
Stanley said she does not believe the school’s reputation will be affected by the ranking, and that it will not affect the school’s decision-making going forward.
“I hope that that’s not what spurs us forward,” Stanley said. “We have a good, strong track record and reputation as a school that allows for all kinds of activities and dissent. We often make room for dissenters. We try to accommodate them on campus. This goes back many, many years. Free speech is a hallmark of this institution, not something that we would do in response to FIRE.”