Officials at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego recently threatened an international journalism student with suspension and campus banishment over emails he sent to hockey coaches while working on a class assignment. His case — and the interim suspension he faced while it was handled — has sparked what The Oswegonian student newspaper calls a “national outcry” and has placed the school at “the center of a national freedom of speech debate.”
According to reports in various media, including The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y., Australian native Alex Myers currently studies journalism and until recently worked in the Office of Public Affairs at SUNY Oswego — also known as Oswego State. For a class assignment requiring “a profile on a public figure,” he selected the school’s hockey coach, Ed Gosek. As part of his reporting for the profile, Myers emailed the hockey coaches at Cornell University, Canisius College and SUNY Cortland requesting their feedback on Gosek.
His email contained two faux pas — one major and factual and the other more minor and stylistic. First, Myers identified himself as an Oswego State public affairs staffer, not a student. Second, he urged the coaches, “Be as forthcoming as you like, what you say about Mr Gosek does not have to be positive.”
The latter statement struck at least the Cornell coach as over the line. As he wrote Myers, “My interactions with ed gosek have all been off ice as we are div 1. He is one of the best guys in college hockey. Your last line of saying your comments don’t need to be positive is offensive.” Myers quickly apologized, claiming he simply wanted to be clear he was not out to pen a “puff piece.”
As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reports, “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 [the next night], 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.”
He was charged with two campus conduct code violations. First, dishonesty, for falsely claiming to be a school employee, not a student. Second, disruptive behavior, apparently related to the overall tone and content of the email to coaches.
The latter charge is what caused confusion and subsequent media attention, considering, as FIRE notes, “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.’ … Alleging that Myers’ emails could possibly have constituted any of these not only violates the First Amendment, it sends a deeply chilling message to students. How safe can student speech at SUNY Oswego possibly be if any criticisms of faculty, staff or fellow students find their way to the wrong administrator?”
Oswego State communication studies professor John Kares Smith also expressed concern about the suspension Myers initially received. As he wrote Stanley, the university president, “This kind of suspension is usually reserved for very dangerous students … often armed with guns, knives, etc., and a danger to the society and themselves. Mr. Myers is none of those things, is he?”
Ultimately, the school lessened its final punishment. After being “banned from his classes and most academic buildings for a week” while the case was sorted out, Myers was not formally suspended and the disruptive behavior charge was dropped. But he was fired from his public affairs position. He also must send an apology to the hockey coach Gosek and write a piece “to share with other students in journalism classes … what you have learned from your experience.”
Myers told the Oswegonian the immense news coverage of the situation has been surreal, apparently even reaching his native Australia. As he said, “It is kind of embarrassing to have my biggest error over my university career to be broadcasted nationally. … It’s definitely tarnished journalism for me. 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.”
Meanwhile, Stanley said she is personally “heart sick over the fact that the institution is being viewed this way [perceived as limiting free speech] and that any individual would have suffered, on all sides. I do know that none of this was about speech.”
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