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Two Different Instances Of Free Speech.

Papal-Symbol-on-Paper-ROH Carnegie Mellon University is embroiled in somewhat of a controversy after three students were arrested and charged after the university’s annual College of Fine Arts’ Anti-Gravity Downhill Derby on Carnival Weekend.

The president of Carnegie Mellon University says charges have been filed in connection with an incident in which a female student dressed up as the pope, and was naked from the waist down, with a her pubic hair shaved in the shape of a cross.

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After a two-week review, Carnegie Mellon police have charged 19-year-old art student, Katherine O’Connor with indecent exposure.

22-year-old Robb Godshaw was also charged with public nudity, along with another student who says he’s friends with both.

The students are claiming “freedom of expression,” to which we wonder “what idea were the students expressing?”

To his credit, the President of the university Dr. Jared L. Cohon seems to understand what has happened and why they students were charged.

He says in a statement:

The students took part in a campus art event and, in the case of the student who portrayed herself as the Pope, made an artistic statement which proved to be controversial. While I recognize that many found the students’ activities deeply offensive, the university upholds their right to create works of art and express their ideas. But, public nudity is a violation of the law and subject to appropriate action.

From this statement, it seems that President Cohon recognizes there is no right to not be offended by someone else’s speech or expression. Just because someone is offended doesn’t mean the person with the idea has to shut up.

Yet in this case, the expression ran afoul of the law. Once again, from Cohon’s statement:

“Carnegie Mellon University values the freedoms of speech, thought, expression and assembly – in themselves and as part of our core educational and intellectual mission. The university must be a place where all ideas may be expressed freely and where no alternative is withheld from consideration. The only limits on these freedoms are those dictated by law and those necessary to protect the rights of other members of the university community and to ensure the normal functioning of the university.”

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We relied on this policy to frame our decision making in this matter. In this situation, the issue is public nudity by two students, one woman and one man, at an open event which members of the public historically have attended, without warning to or protection of anyone who might unwittingly be witness to that exposure. This is a violation of Pennsylvania law.

To us, this seems reasonable. The event took place in public, which means it is subject to public law. The students’ expression was a violation of the law. They are not being disciplined by the school, which encourages the free exchange of ideas, but rather the police, who are enforcing the law of the land.

Contrast the incident at Carnegie-Mellon with an incident that took place at Syracuse University. Matthew Werenczak was a student at Syracuse’s School of Education (SOE) when he was assigned to tutor kids at a local middle school. The school was in a depressed area, was rated low educationally, and the kids who Werenczak was going to tutor were mostly black.

Another Syracuse student was assigned to the Danforth Middle School along with Werenczak.

On the first day of Werenczak’s tutoring program at Danforth Middle School, he and another Syracuse student were introduced to their students by a member of the Concerned Citizens Action Program (CCAP). They happened to be the only two white people in the room. Shortly after the introduction, in the presence of Werenczak and the other white student teacher, the CCAP member, who is black, said that he thought that the city schools should hire more teachers from historically black colleges.

The incident troubled Werenczak. He posted the incident on his Facebook page:

Werecznak Post

In September, 2011, Syracuse University sent Werecznak a letter informing him he was being removed from the program and accusing his actions of being “unprofessional, offensive, and insensitive not only to the Danforth School but also to the SOE and Syracuse University.”

The letter gave Werenczak two options. The first was to withdraw from school altogether. The second option was:

You are permitted from doing student-teaching in the fall of 2011 while being required to seek counseling for not only anger management issues but also issues relating to your being harassed. Second, you will have to successfully complete an additional course or program on cultural diversity that the SOE chooses. Third, you will have to write a reflective paper that demonstrates the progress and growth you have made in relation to issues regarding cultural diversity as well as your own personal growth. Fourth, a committee will review your paper, meet with you, and determine if you capable of continuing in the program. To be clear, completing all of the aforementioned steps does not guarantee you re-admittance to the SOE. The committee will make that final decision.

(And yes, the letter actually says Werenczak is “permitted” from teaching instead of “not permitted,” “restrained,” “ineligible,” etc.)

We have all sorts of issues with this letter in general and the “options” specifically. We have seen nothing that indicates Werenczak had any issues with anger, much less needed “anger management” training. The letter also accuses Werenczak of having “issues relating to your being harassed.” That seems to us to be a case where the school doesn’t want to deal with the person who made the comment and wants to punish Werenczak for speaking out. It is the comment made by the organizer that was unprofessional.

For whatever reason, Werenczak decided to take the second option. He took the classes, dealt with his supposed anger, and wrote the required paper, all of which was completed in the early part of December, 2011.

Werenczak was then told to wait.

After doing all of the work he was required to do by the school, his future was still up in the air. In early January of 2012, Werenczak wrote Dr. Jeffery A. Mangram, who had written the “options” letter, wanting to know his status. Once again, Werenczak was not only told to “be patient,” but that his pressing the issue could result in a delay in the hearing to reinstate him.

The series of emails between Werenczak and Mangram can be seen here. The last email from Mangram contains what has to be taken as a threat:

Matt, I understand your concerns, but you may want to take action, which further delay the process. The committee IS NOT going to meet until early next week, at the earliest! If the committee decides to re-enroll you in the School of Education, I can assure you that a placement will be found for you. Also, IF the committee decides to re-enroll you, you will not be starting in mid-January.

Werenczak had jumped through all of the hoops the school had placed before him and was now being told “if the committee decides to re-enroll” him?

Werenczak had had enough and contacted the group “Freedom of Individual Rights in Education” or better known as “The FIRE.”

After investigating, FIRE fired off a letter (no pun intended) to Syracuse University:

As Werenczak had not been afforded the most basic protection under the law, and as the school had violated its own policies regarding freedom of expression and due process, the lawyers at FIRE demanded Werenczak be reinstated.

After being pressured by public outcry and The FIRE, on January 18, 2012, Werenczak received a letter from Syracuse reinstating him into the program. The letter still blames Werenczak for the incident.

On the same day, the school sent a letter to FIRE saying that with Werenczak’s reinstatement, the issue was now closed. However, the letter also shifts the blame for the school’s actions away from the school and onto another organization:

In particular, it is important to note that professional conduct as a student teacher is not only an SOE academic requirement but also a part of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (“NeATE”) standards.

In other words, despite persecuting a student for protected speech in wondering if racially discriminatory comments in the workplace or educational environment were acceptable, despite violating the First Amendment, despite violating their own policies and procedures, and despite stringing a student along for no reason, Syracuse University still will not admit wrongdoing, or even say “we will work to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Schools teach more than what is found in books and Syracuse University has just taught Matthew Werenczak what it is like to deal with people who have a lack of integrity.

More on the Werenczak case can be seen here:

Two schools, two incidents, and two totally different reactions.

Which school would you want your kid attending?

We know our answer.



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