SUNY Oswego incident demonstrates free speech on campuses still counts
If being told you are entering a crumbling industry where you are doomed to be overworked and underpaid and possibly laid off isn’t enough to drive you away from your field of study, just try pissing off some university administrators.
Last month, Alex Myers, an Australian exchange student studying journalism at the State University of New York College at Oswego, was working on a class assignment on SUNY Oswego men’s hockey coach Ed Gosek. The assignment was to write a profile on a public figure. He got suspended for it.
As part of his reporting, Myers emailed hockey coaches at Cornell University, Canisius College and SUNY Cortland for their thoughts on Gosek. In the email, released by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Myers introduced himself by saying he works for the Office of Public Affairs at SUNY Oswego.
He did not identify himself as a student or clarify the profile was for a class assignment. He concluded the email by saying, “Be as forthcoming as you like. What you say about Mr. Gosek does not have to be positive.”
The Cornell coach emailed Myers to tell him that last line was offensive. Myers quickly apologized and said he meant only to make it clear that the profile was not a fluff piece.
The next day, Myers received a hand-delivered letter from SUNY Oswego President Deborah Stanley, reported FIRE, a nonprofit organization that focuses on protecting civil liberties in academia. The letter informed Myers he was being placed on interim suspension, and banned him from campus.
The university charged Myers with “dishonesty” for misrepresenting himself as a university employee instead of a student and intern in the Public Affairs office. It also accused Myers of “disruptive behavior,” citing the code of conduct’s section that says “campus network resources may not be used to defame, harass, intimidate, or threaten another individual or group.”
FIRE came to Myers’ defense, writing to university officials asking them to drop the suspension.
“Categorizing Myers’ emails as possible defamation, harassment, intimidation, or threats is indefensible,” wrote Peter Bonilla, an associate director of the organization. “By punishing Myers for protected speech, SUNY Oswego has violated the First Amendment.”
Others — including journalists, professors at the school and other students — have also criticized the school’s response.
Last week, SUNY Oswego dropped the “disruptive behavior” charge and will allow Myers to finish out the rest of the semester after all, though he will be required to write a letter of apology to the hockey coach and a piece about what he learned from the experience.
In an interview with SUNY Oswego’s student newspaper, Myers described feeling discouraged by the incident.
“It’s definitely tarnished journalism for me,” Myers said. “I was unsure about whether I was suitable for journalism prior to all this. This hasn’t really helped my view on the field, so I’m not 100 percent sure if I’ll continue that career path or if I’ll go into something else.”
The incident also raises questions about free expression on college campuses.
“The campus is vigilant about providing free speech,” Stanley said in in the Oswegonian. “There just is no learning without the building block of free speech.”
Admittedly, Myers should have been more specific in identifying himself, but equating his email with harassment, intimidation or threats was a huge overreaction.
In a learning environment, students have to be given the opportunity to learn without fear. As Stanley said, free speech is critical to learning.
What is commendable about the incident was the backlash that the university received for Myers’ suspension. Institutions of higher education are being held accountable for their actions, especially when those actions infringe on the rights of students. Free speech matters, and people are reminding university administrators of that every day.
What happened to Myers should, rightfully, tarnish SUNY Oswego’s administration. But it shouldn’t tarnish journalism.