Syracuse University law student learns there's a limit to free speech
February 1, 2011
by Abram Brown
Syracuse, NY -- A controversy over a satirical blog that commented on everything from professors to bathrooms to sex at Syracuse University’s College of Law came to an end Tuesday afternoon.
SU, which was named “the No. 1 worst campus for free speech in America” over this issue, by a free speech advocacy group, decided to stop the investigation into the SUCOLitis blog and not to file charges against one of the student authors, according to Kevin Quinn, SU’s vice president of public affairs, in a news release.
“We have determined it is in the best interest of those who were targeted by the blog to end the investigation and not pursue the matter any further,” Quinn said.
The student under investigation, Len Audaer, a second-year law student, e-mailed apologies to several people who complained about SUCOLitis’ content. The apologies led SU to drop the investigation, Audaer said. “I think the one word that I feel right now is, ‘elated’,” Audaer said Tuesday. “I can return to being a student and stop being a pariah on campus.”
The blog began in early October as a way to lighten the law school’s somber atmosphere, Audaer said. The blog chose not to list its authors’ names to give it a single editorial voice, and soon the posts began.
One post named a former College of Law administrator, claimed she had died, and discussed having sex with her. Another discussed etiquette while peeing at an urinal. A third post detailed a fictitious new stress-relief program where promiscuous first-year law students sleep with third-year students.
On Oct. 15, Audaer received an e-mail notifying him that SU was investigating him and the blog. He was facing “extremely serious” charges, according to an e-mail from SU’s investigator, Gregory Germain, who is also a SU law professor. “I was involved with the blog, but there were others who were also involved,” Audaer said. “Our purpose was just to entertain, just to entertain.”
Audaer notified a free speech advocacy group, Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which worked to publicize the issue and bring negative attention to SU. Audaer and Germain worked through mediation until FIRE ignited the controversy further.
Until Jan. 28, Audaer refused to publicly admit he was a SUCOLitis author, and he still declines to name his co-authors. He only came out publicly after SU allegedly broke a condition of the negotiations, he said. Under the negotiations, Audaer would agree to both publicly apologize and admit authorship. In return, SU and he would issue a joint statement, he said.
Germain initially agreed to an interview, but later declined, saying all information must come from Quinn,. Quinn declined to discuss the negotiations. Negotiations broke down when FIRE named SU the No. 1 worst campus for free speech in America in a Jan. 27 article on The Huffington Post website. FIRE in the past has criticized other schools, such as Brandeis University and DePaul University.
Following FIRE’s article, SU released a statement from Vice Chancellor and Provost Eric Spina. While the release avoids naming Audaer as an author, Spina said SUCOLitis “contained false, mean-spirited attacks.”
“Anyone who reads the blog entries will realize it is not harmless fun,” Spina said in the statement.
Now that SU has ended the investigation, FIRE plans to change The Huffington Post article, said Adam Kissel, FIRE’s vice president of programs. “It looks like Len Audaer’s ordeal is finally over and that Syracuse has learned some important lessons about free speech, or at least, I hope so,” Kissel said.
After FIRE’s public denouncement and Spina’s statement, Audaer felt SU had violated its agreement to issue a joint statement about SUCOLitis. So he said he sent out the four apology e-mails that led to the end of the investigation.
Legally the blog was protected by the First Amendment’s right to free speech, said Eugene Volokh, University of California Los Angeles law professor and a free speech expert. While the blog may be a juvenile joke gone wild, Volokh said, it remains protected under the Constitution.
“Look, it seems to me, that this would be an opportunity for the dean to call him into his office and tell him that he’s completely shot himself in the foot, professionally speaking,” Volokh said.
Since Audaer has both apologized and admitted authorship, he said he expects the only punitive action could come against him when he takes the bar exam, which requires a student’s university to review his performance at school.
- Syracuse University law student learns there's a limit to free speech, PDF, 203.1 KB , syracuse.com