It was barely a year ago that Syracuse University was at the top of this list of the "12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech" here at the Huffington Post. Back then, the law school had threatened to expel a student for taking part in a satirical fake-news blog about life in law school. This time, Syracuse's School of Education effectively expelled a graduate student from its teaching program after he complained on Facebook about a racially charged statement made in his presence by a community leader. Syracuse told Matthew Werenczak that his only chance for reinstatement was to undergo a special course of diversity training and counseling for "anger management" because of his Facebook comments.
I might feel disturbed, too, if someone said in my hearing that my race might determine whether I would be hired for a job. But that's apparently what happened last July, when Matt was student teaching with Danforth Middle School students on a field trip. After he was introduced to a member of the city's Concerned Citizens Action Program (CCAP), this person complained aloud that city schools should hire more teachers from historically black colleges--in the presence of Matt and another white student teacher.
All Matt wanted to do was express his concern about his job prospects after he thought someone had suggested discriminating against him due to his race. So he took to his personal Facebook page and wrote, "Just making sure we're okay with racism. It's not enough I'm ... tutoring in the worst school in the city, I suppose I oughta be black or stay in my own side of town." Matt further wrote that "it kind of offends me that I'm basically volunteering the summer at Danforth, getting up at 630, with no AC, to help tutor kids and that's not enough."
You shouldn't get expelled for innocent personal feelings you express on Facebook. And such comments wouldn't (or shouldn't) get you fired if you were already a public school teacher. Even Syracuse, as a matter of policy, promises that "[s]tudents have the right to express themselves freely on any subject" and that "Syracuse University ... welcomes and encourages the expression of dissent."
But Syracuse's School of Education (SOE) didn't honor those promises. It didn't even charge Matt with a single infraction or subject him to a disciplinary hearing. (Matt did go to a non-disciplinary meeting with administrators shortly before the school year began.) SOE simply declared that it was expelling him because of the Facebook comments. Matt could avoid expulsion by voluntarily withdrawing, as Social Studies Education Coordinator Jeffery A. Mangram wrote on Sept. 7, or Matt could fulfill several requirements in order to gain a mere chance of "re-admittance." Mangram's letter, which had a disturbing number of typos for something written by an education professor, stated:
You are permitted from [sic] doing student-teaching in the fall of 2011 while being required to seek counseling for not only anger management issues but also issues relating to your being harassed. Second, you will have to successfully complete an additional course or program on cultural diversity that the SOE chooses. Third, you will have to write a reflective paper that demonstrates the progress and growth you have made in relation to issues regarding cultural diversity as well as your own personal growth. Fourth, a committee will review your paper, meet with you, and determine if you capable [sic] of continuing in the program.
Under the pressure of either complying or ending his teaching career, Matt completed all the requirements, unfair (and nearly incomprehensible) as they were. His psychological evaluation found, as one might expect, that Matt was perfectly fine. The diversity counseling ended quickly once it became clear to the counselor that Matt needed no special counseling. And Matt wrote the paper. He notified university officials in December, but weeks later, the School of Education had not yet even formed the committee to review his case.
At this point, time was running out. Matt had already lost the fall semester, and if the school didn't act soon, he'd lose the spring semester as well -- if SOE would even readmit him. Matt told Mangram that he might need to take action, but then Mangram warned him that such action would "further delay the process."
That's when Matt turned for help to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I work. FIRE wrote Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor on January 10, pointing out that SOE's action "profoundly violates Syracuse's express promises of freedom of speech." Syracuse failed to respond, leaving Matt's future in limbo.
So we took the case public and, lo and behold, Syracuse couldn't get away with the injustice it had tried to accomplish in private. Within hours after we sent out a national press release, Syracuse backed down and told Matt he was back in the program.
But Syracuse has a terrible history with online student speech, and we ought to be vigilant to make sure Syracuse upholds its promises. The School of Education has not admitted that it made a mistake, and any education student could be the next one expelled over a Facebook comment.