Syracuse, NY, May 7, 2018 — A Syracuse University engineering fraternity has been dismantled and its members face possible expulsion after videos of a satirical “roast” leaked from a private Facebook page last month. An adjunct professor who questioned the university’s response to the incident was also dismissed. On Friday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to Syracuse Chancellor Kent Syverud to demand that Syracuse respect student and faculty expressive rights and drop the investigation.
The roast, an event at which new members were invited to lampoon other fraternity members, consisted of several recorded skits. One video shows a racially-diverse group of Theta Tau members satirizing a fraternity member for his conservative political beliefs and support for President Donald Trump through a skit about a fictitious racist and anti-Semitic fraternity. A second skit depicted a fraternity member as “brain dead” and “retarded” due to being “chronically whipped by his controlling girlfriend.”
In April, an unknown individual sent the videos to The Daily Orange, Syracuse’s student newspaper, without Theta Tau’s consent. Stripped of their satirical context, the videos provoked backlash and calls for the university to impose discipline.
“At Syracuse, apparently even your private interactions with friends are punishable if random third parties who weren’t even there object to what you said,” said Ari Cohn, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “This kind of crowd-sourced thought-policing is totally unacceptable — especially at a school like Syracuse, which not only promises free expression but has adorned a campus building with the words ‘freedom of speech’ in 10-foot-high letters.”
Syverud announced on April 18 that the university had suspended the fraternity and launched a formal investigation to identify those involved for “swift and appropriate consequences,” including further legal and disciplinary action, even expulsion. He condemned the fraternity’s behavior as “extremely racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist, and hostile to people with disabilities.”
Theta Tau apologized for the video, noting that it “was never intended to be centered around racism or hate. This year, one of these brothers is a conservative Republican, and the new members roasted him by playing the part of a racist conservative character.”
Members explained to The Post-Standard, the local newspaper, that almost half of the fraternity’s members identify as part of a minority or ethnic group, noting that “Theta Tau is roughly twice as diverse as the Syracuse University undergraduate engineering student body.”
On April 21, the university permanently expelled the fraternity, and 18 students allegedly involved in the roast received a letter informing them that they are accused of violating seven student conduct provisions, including prohibitions on physical abuse, harassment, and controlled substances. The students have been barred from attending class.
FIRE’s letter explains that Syracuse must honor the explicit, repeated promises of freedom of expression that it makes to students and notes that while the video’s content may be offensive to many, it is protected expression.
On April 24, five of the brothers filed a federal lawsuit against the university, seeking a reversal of their suspension and damages. Syracuse law professor Gregory Germain also wrote a letter to Syracuse’s chief counsel on behalf of three members, arguing that if Syracuse “does not want the continued presence of the students, the students should be allowed to transfer without damaging information in their academic files for engaging in protected free speech.”
Professors also have reason to fear Syracuse’s crackdown on dissent after the university emailed faculty members for their opinions on the situation, and then fired a professor for his reply. Adjunct associate professor Stuart Card replied to the request for comment, telling the university: “I strongly believe that reinforcing the current myth that individuals are likely to be damaged by exposure to expressions that they find offensive, and thus require pampering, is a disservice to our students and our profession.”
Card told Syracuse not to continue his employment if it considered his views “so objectionable as to disqualify [him] from further service.” Shockingly, Syracuse took him up on that offer, telling him that he was no longer qualified to teach Syracuse students due to the “misalignment between [his] values and those of the college.” Yet last year, in defending a professor who tweeted, “We almost have the fascists in on the run. Syracuse people come down to the federal building to finish them off,” Syverud stated that “[o]ur faculty must be able to say and write things — including things that provoke some or make other uncomfortable — up to the very limits of the law.” Syverud has not explained why the university reacted so differently to these two examples of faculty expression.
“In its rush to mollify those offended by the fraternity’s private expression without regard for context, the Syracuse administration has taken a decidedly authoritarian bent,” said Cohn. “Syracuse seems determined to run roughshod over the rights of anyone involved — even those who merely question its reaction. Its conduct is totally unworthy of the promises it makes to students and faculty members.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.