Syracuse University Threatens 'Harassment' Charges over Satirical Blog; Seeks Gag Order on Alleged Author
December 14, 2010
SYRACUSE, N.Y., Dec. 14, 2010—Syracuse University College of Law (SUCOL) has threatened a student with "harassment" charges for the last two months because of the content of a satirical blog about life in law school, but the university has refused to tell him what expression in particular justified the charges or even who is charging him. Worse still, SUCOL is now demanding a gag order on law student Len Audaer, his attorney, and any media outlets that receive information about the case. Audaer, who potentially faces expulsion, came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
"Because of his alleged involvement with a blog intended to resemble The Onion, Syracuse has held harassment charges over Len Audaer's head for two months," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "Now the university is trying to force him into silence, despite the fact that Audaer still doesn't know the identity of his accuser or even what expression is at issue. Syracuse University College of Law should be demonstrating the importance of free speech and due process to its students by example; instead it seems to prefer the example of the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland."
Audaer's ordeal began on October 15, 2010, when he was summoned to a meeting with SUCOL Associate Professor of Law Gregory Germain due to "extremely serious" charges. In the meeting, held on October 18, Audaer learned that the charges involved "harassment" for his alleged involvement with SUCOLitis. The anonymous, satirical blog attributed obviously fake quotes to SUCOL students, faculty, and staff. The blog included a disclaimer stating, "No actual news stories appear on the site."
SUCOL has threatened Audaer with harassment charges despite not knowing whether Audaer has any relationship to SUCOLitis. Audaer has invoked his right against self-incrimination as promised by SUCOL policies. SUCOLitis attributes its publication to a "team of scarily talented 2 and 3L students."
FIRE wrote Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor on October 25, pointing out that the investigation violates Syracuse's promises of free speech and that the content of SUCOLitis falls far outside of Syracuse's—and the state and federal definitions—of harassment. SUCOL Dean Hannah R. Arterian responded on November 1, stating that the investigation was continuing.
Yesterday, FIRE learned that Germain is demanding that Audaer and his attorney, Mark Blum (SUCOL '91), sign a gag order in order to receive any information from Syracuse about the charges. Provisions for such an order are nowhere to be found among SUCOL's procedures for addressing code of conduct violations.
The proposed gag order effectively prevents any media from reporting on the case using this information, and it effectively prevents Audaer from interviewing witnesses. It prohibits disclosure of any information obtained from Syracuse during Audaer's prosecution, including the complaint, the blog entries, and witness testimony, unless each recipient of the information agrees to certain conditions.
One condition would ban media recipients from posting excerpts of disclosed documents "to prevent misleading selective posting of information." Media outlets would be required to assent to this condition in writing.
Further, anyone whose name is mentioned in a document to be published must provide written permission. Since Ted Turner and Ellen DeGeneres are named in a blog post, the gag order would, by its own language, require written permission from them before reprinting the blog post.
"Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that sunlight is the best disinfectant, but Gregory Germain is trying to keep this case in the dark," FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel said. "After two months, Germain won't even reveal the basic information that Audaer needs to defend himself. Gregory Germain's utter disregard for Len Audaer's most basic rights is truly shameful."
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation's colleges and universities. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Adam Kissel, Vice President of Programs, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
Nancy Cantor, Chancellor, Syracuse University: 315-443-2235; firstname.lastname@example.org
TAKE ACTION: Tell Syracuse University to honor its promises of free speech and due process.