Even the most liberal journalism departments usually teach the importance of “freedom of the press”.

Unfortunately for one exchange student, the State University of New York College at Oswego (SUNY Oswego) has managed to confuse protected speech and inquiry with unprotected true threats.

Peter Bonilla of the Freedom for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) takes a look at the case, in which the university leveled charges against a journalism student for writing a few short emails.

The student at the center of the latest storm is Alex Myers, an exchange student from Australia who worked as an intern in SUNY Oswego’s Office of Public Affairs (OPA). Myers was also enrolled in an advanced-level course in SUNY Oswego’s journalism department. For one of his class assignments, Myers was given the task of writing a feature on a public figure. Myers chose SUNY Oswego men’s hockey coach Ed Gosek, and on October 17, Myers sent the following email to the hockey coaches at Cornell University, Canisius College, and SUNY Cortland:

My name is Alex Myers, I work for the Office of Public Affairs at SUNY Oswego.

I am currently writing a profile on Oswego State Hockey head coach Ed Gosek and was hoping to get a rival coaches view on Mr Gosek.

If you have time would you mind answering the following questions.

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.

Cornell coach Michael Schafer replied that “saying your comments don’t need to be positive is offensive.” In response, Myers apologized, stating that he was “simply letting you know that this piece I am writing is not a ‘puff’ piece.”

The next evening, Myers received a hand-delivered letter from SUNY Oswego President Deborah Stanley, informing him that he was being placed on interim suspension, effective at 6:00 p.m. October 19, and that he would have to vacate his dorm room by that time. The letter also banned him from all campus facilities and informed him that he may be subject to arrest if he came on campus.

Accompanying this letter was a statement of charges, outlining two alleged violations of SUNY Oswego’s Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities and Conduct. The first charge, stemming from his emails’ statement that he worked for OPA without the clarification that the profile he was writing was class-related, was for “dishonesty.” According to SUNY Oswego policy, this conduct encompasses “academic dishonesty,” “knowingly furnishing false information to the College,” and “forgery or alteration or use of documents with intent to defraud,” among other things.

The second, and far more drastic, charge was for “disruptive behavior.” Among the behaviors that merit this charge are “harassment,” “intimidation,” “threats,” “conduct which inhibits the peace or safety of members of the College community,” and “retaliation, harassment or coercion.” The charges further stated that:

Specifically: Campus network resources may not be used to defame, harass, intimidate, or threaten another individual or group.

Bonilla detailed the outcome of the cases against Meyers:

On October 31, Myers was officially given a “warning” by SUNY Oswego, though one that came with strings attached. Myers is now required to complete an “education assignment,” under the guidance of his journalism professor, “to share with other students in journalism classes that will share what you have learned from your experience.” Further, he is required to write apology letters to SUNY Oswego hockey coach Ed Gosek, as well as to the three coaches he contacted for his assignment.

This is, of course, a far better outcome for Myers than he would likely have faced had he been found guilty of the “disruptive behavior” charge—which isn’t to say I’m completely happy with it. FIRE is deeply wary of any kind of compelled speech as punishment, and we’ve seen it used numerous times to odious effect. Many such punishments are blatantly unconstitutional. Other times they’re used a reminder of the administration’s power over the student. Quite often they’re both. The fact that Myers is being forced to apologize for protected speech makes this all the more troubling.

And besides, the case can easily be made that Myers has been punished more than enough. After all, he was forced to live with the possibility of a severely unjust punishment hanging over his head, placed on suspension, and ordered, at least initially, to vacate his dorm and leave campus under penalty of arrest. His internship with OPA was also terminated. And, of course, a police record of this incident may well still exist; the notation of his case number on the final page of Myers’ warning letter strongly suggests police involvement in his case on at least an administrative level.

Seeking to put the incident behind him, Myers plans to complete the sanctions. But if apologies are on the table here, how about SUNY Oswego apologizing to Myers for treating him like a criminal and branding him a threat to the community when he clearly wasn’t?