Guilt by Association at Syracuse

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The words of the First Amendment are emblazoned on the side of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication. The university’s chancellor, Kent Syverud, said that he couldn’t imagine the “genuine search for truth thriving here without free speech.” For students at Syracuse, however, their experience often falls short of the school’s lofty commitments.

Syracuse’s ongoing court battle with members of the since-dissolved Theta Tau fraternity demonstrates the university’s posture on questions of free speech and freedom of association. The university dismantled Theta Tau and suspended several of its members after a video emerged showing members performing a satirical skit laced with racially charged language. Such suspensions can be appealed, but Syracuse would have required the students to read three books about “inclusion,” write a 12-page paper on what it means to belong to a “diverse community,” and perform 160 hours of community service even if their appeal were successful. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) observed that the university had proposed more community-service hours for the students “than the maximum recommended number of community service hours for Class B Misdemeanors in New York.”

Several of the suspended students are now suing the school. They accuse Syracuse of censuring them for engaging in constitutionally protected speech. FIRE filed an amicus curiae brief in the case, arguing that the private university’s decision to suspend the students violates its commitments as expressed in its official policies.

“Any student reading Syracuse’s policies, listening to the statements of its chancellor, or seeing the First Amendment prominently displayed on a campus building would reasonably expect to possess the same expressive rights as students at New York’s public colleges and universities,” the brief said.

The Theta Tau incident is but one example of Syracuse’s controversial handling of its students’ expressive and associational freedoms. In 2019, a small group of fraternity members allegedly uttered a racial slur at a black student. Instead of reprimanding the students responsible, the university suspended all fraternity and sorority social activities. The chancellor argued that punishing all Greek organizations for the conduct of a few individuals would encourage fraternities “to reflect upon how to prevent recurrence of such seriously troubling behavior.”

Nicholas Phaneuf, a senior fraternity member at Syracuse, said that members of the university’s Greek organizations could expect to face consequences for the misdeeds of their peers.

“If one kid does something stupid, then everyone is going to take a hit for it,” he said.

According to Zach Greenberg of FIRE, “guilt by association” has a chilling effect on students’ right to free association.

“Guilt by association is an egregious violation of students’ associational rights and an affront to a free society. It has no place at any institution of higher learning in the United States and should not be used to punish students or their groups,” Greenberg said. “Unfortunately, at Syracuse and elsewhere, it is far too common to see universities invoke guilt by association to punish entire Greek life systems—including innocent students—for the misconduct of a few individuals. FIRE urges universities to uphold students’ rights by refraining from punishing them for misconduct they did not commit.”

The results of RealClearEducation’s Survey of Greek Organizations on Freedom of Speech and Association further the impression that Syracuse is not adequately protecting associational freedoms for its Greek-involved students. The survey, which was administered to students at more than 500 colleges and universities around the country, measured fraternity and sorority members’ perceptions of organizational freedoms, administrative fairness, and free speech on campus. Institutions were assigned letter grades based on their performance relative to the other colleges and universities represented in the survey.

Syracuse received an ‘F’ letter grade for its performance in the survey. The sample size was relatively small, including only 13 Greek-involved students at Syracuse, but some of the findings were consistent with the broader picture of the university painted by its past behavior.

Seventy-six percent of Greek-affiliated Syracuse students surveyed did not feel all student groups were treated equally by the administration. Eighty-four percent were not confident in the future of Greek life on campus. Forty-six percent did not feel their fraternity or sorority was treated fairly by campus administrators.

Greenberg was not surprised by the survey results.

“Syracuse has continually shown that it will not protect the expressive and associational [rights of] students or groups, despite promising such rights in its official policies. The university’s past failure to defend the freedoms of speech and association may inform current students’ views on whether the university will protect their rights in the future,” he said.

Phaneuf had a different view, noting that while the university treats fraternities and sororities differently than other student groups, some of the disparity in treatment is due to Greek life’s popularity on campus.

“Greek life, in general, is dying across the nation, and I feel like the administration at Syracuse is a little stricter toward Greek life than other groups. But at the same time, I also feel like they give Greek life more attention than other groups because there is just a bigger population of people in Greek life versus other student groups,” he said.

Whatever its motive for treating student groups unequally, Greenberg said that Syracuse should demonstrate its commitment to protecting student freedoms for the benefit of the campus community.

“Syracuse should make clear that it will uphold its promises to protect the expressive and associational rights of its students, even when it is difficult or unpopular to do so. It can explain how the protection of such rights inures to the benefit of the entire university community. The university can also better train its administrators on what these rights entail.”

Syracuse University did not respond to a request for comment.

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