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A journalist student at State University of New York College at Oswego was threatened with suspension from the school for sending emails that asked questions for a writing project.
Word of the situation that developed over the past few weeks for Alex Myers is described in a report on the website for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
The report said Myers, an exchange student from Australia who worked as an intern in the school’s public affairs office, had an assignment to write a feature story for a class on a public figure and he picked the schools hockey coach, Ed Gosek.
He wrote to coaches whose teams played Oswego’s team, asking:
“1. How do you find Mr Gosek to coach against?
“2. Have you had any interactions with Mr Gosek off the ice? If so how did you find him?
“3. What is your rivalry like between your school and Oswego State?
“Be as forthcoming as you like, what you say about Mr Gosek does not have to be positive. ”
One coach, Michael Schafer from Cornell, responded that “saying your comments don’t need to be positive is offensive,” and Myers apologized, explaining he was “simply letting you know that this piece I am writing is not a ‘puff’ piece,” FIRE reported.
Within hours, he was given a letter from Oswego President Deborah Stanley placing him on interim suspension, with orders to vacate his dorm room and banning him from campus on threat of arrest.
He had been charged with “dishonesty” for asking the coaches questions without telling them it was for a class assignment. And he was accused of “disruptive behavior.”
The FIRE stepped into the case to tell the school’s president that the reaction was far beyond what was reasonable.
The organization told the school, “Myers’ emails do not cross the threshold for any of the categories of unprotected speech SUNY Oswego has alleged. First, defamation, a narrow exception to the First Amendment that carries a specific legal definition, requires that the speaker make a knowingly false statement with the intent to injure the reputation of its target. But not only does Myers’ email not make any false statements about Gosek, it doesn’t make any factual statements about Gosek of any kind. Myers’ brief email simply encouraged other coaches to speak freely about their interactions with Gosek, regardless of whether their experiences were positive. That Myers’ email invited a frank and honest assessment of Gosek in no way brings it into the realm of defamation as defined under the law.”
Neither are claims of harassment appropriate, FIRE said.
The Supreme Court “defined harassment as conduct that is ‘so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.’ By definition, this includes only extreme and usually repetitive behavior-behavior so serious that it would prevent a reasonable person from receiving his or her education.
“Alleging that Myers’ emails could possibly have constituted any of these not only violates the First Amendment, it sends a deeply chilling message to students. How safe can student speech at SUNY Oswego possibly be if any criticisms of faculty, staff, or fellow students find their way to the wrong administrator? What if you’re an enterprising student on assignment for the college’s newspaper, The Oswegonian, asking probing questions in pursuit of a story?” the FIRE report said.
The organization, which, as its name suggest, battles for the rights of individuals in educational settings, said an additional problem was that the school copied police on its concerns.
“That clearly non-threatening emails can result in disciplinary sanctions for students is concerning enough; that SUNY Oswego would use its police to enforce such unjust sanctions as Myers faced is downright alarming,” the report, by Peter Bonilla, said.
The report said Myers ultimately was allowed to remain on campus, although with limited campus access, and given a “warning” that required him to complete an “educational assignment,” Fire reported.
While that’s a better outcome that the school initially proposed, FIRE reported that such punishments often are “blatantly unconstitutional.”
The organization said it’s another situation where a university has revealed “a dangerous tendency to conflate protected speech with unprotected true threats.”
“Even with the low bar many other universities have set, SUNY Oswego’s shocking decision to pursue threat charges stands out,” the report said.