Thrown Out Of School For Someone Else’s Posts.

University-of-Tulsa-ROHVia Politico’s Pontifications and The Fire comes the story of George “Trey” Barnett, a student with 16 credit hours left before getting his degree at the University of Tulsa.

The University has kicked Barnett out of school for someone elses posts on Facebook.

TULSA, Okla., February 12, 2015—In a triple blow to free speech, due process, and freedom of the press, the University of Tulsa (TU) arbitrarily banned a student from campus until 2016 for Facebook posts that someone else admitted to writing and then attempted to intimidate student journalists who were trying to cover the story.

Even if Barnett returns to school in 2016, the school will not allow him to finish his degree in his chosen major and will not accept transfers of credits from other colleges.

The story starts when Barnett’s then fiance (now husband) Christopher Mangum posted several posts on Mangum’s Facebook page criticizing two professors at Tulsa as “unprofessional, immoral and unqualified.” In addition, the posts made a reference to a student who was “morbidly obese.” The posts appeared on Mangum’s page but because Barnett was “tagged” on the posts, they were visible on Barnett’s page as well. Magnum wrote an affidavit saying that he and he alone was responsible for the posts.

However, the University disagreed saying Barnett’s defense of “Chris did it” didn’t fly. Barnett was kicked out of school without a hearing.

In its decision, the university said that after Barnett was told to remove the posts from his Facebook page, he was then responsible for them. The first of the statements — posted in April — stayed on his page for five months, but all three were deleted by October.

“Mr. Barnett became responsible for taking reasonable steps to prevent further attacks against the University of Tulsa faculty and students on his Facebook page,” the decision reads, adding that the three people targeted by the posts “expressed great distress, intimidation and dread at the mere thought of working alongside” him.

The University is not covered under the First Amendment as it is not a state college. However, the school should follow its own policies, which it appears to have broken. According to Inside Higher Learning:

In an appeal to the university’s decision, Barnett said the university did not follow its own policies in suspending him, as the Student Code of Student Conduct “does not prohibit” his actions. The code does not mention whether a student can be punished for statements made by someone else. Barnett was also not given a hearing.

In a statement Tuesday, Steadman Upham, Tulsa’s president, defended the university’s decision.

“The case in question was not a student conduct case, but investigation of a complaint involving harassment,” Upham said. “Under the harassment policy all proceedings are bound by confidentiality, and a hearing is not part of the process. University officials are bound by strict confidentiality in such matters. The university will continue to hold to this standard now and in the future.”

The university’s harassment policy states that if a harassment complaint is filed, “investigations and, if appropriate, hearings shall be conducted in accordance with the appropriate governing document.” The appropriate governing document for students accused of harassment, according to the same policy, is the Student Code of Conduct. And the code of conduct states that students have a right to a hearing. The university did not respond to a request to clarify the policy.

Not only did the University refuse to answer questions from “outside reporter,” they threatened the reporters and staff of the school’s student newspaper, the Collegian.

The next day, we contacted University Relations to request an interview with Senior Vice Provost Winona Tanaka, since she was the author of the decision in Barnett’s case.

This interview was never granted, and the school never commented on the veracity of the documents. On Jan. 21, I met with Mona Chamberlin, Director of Marketing and Communications, to discuss questions we had regarding Barnett’s suspension. I discussed with Chamberlin each of the documents Barnett shared with us.

The day after this meeting, we sent a list of questions to Tanaka through Chamberlin, as the university will usually respond only to questions submitted through Chamberlin’s office.

On Jan. 23, I received a call from the Collegian’s advisor Dan Bewley. He told me that he had spoken with Chamberlin by phone that morning. According to Bewley, the school expressed a concern that the Collegian would cross a line in our investigation and that this could result in some sort of university action.

I immediately contacted Chamberlin to arrange a second meeting, which took place later that day. Conor Fellin, Dan Bewley and I were each present. We made a recording of this meeting. At the meeting, Chamberlin outlined the administration’s concerns. We were told that the school would not answer any questions and that unspecified pieces of information in our possession were confidential. If “anything that the university deems to be confidential” is “published or shared, (that) could violate university policies,” Chamberlin said.

“If this has already been shared, and I don’t know what you have shared with Conor or what you have shared as a staff,” Chamberlin said, “that constitutes disseminating this information.”

When pressed on the nature of this confidentiality, Chamberlin did not elaborate. The school never told us what information it deems confidential.

Despite multiple requests, the school never provided a highlighted copy of TU disciplinary policies showing the provisions we would violate by publishing “confidential” information.

Chamberlin additionally advised us to consult legal counsel. After the meeting, we contacted the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), a non-profit that supports freedom of the press on college campuses and provides legal counsel for student journalists.

SPLC contacted the university’s lawyer on Jan. 28. According to our contact at SPLC, it is TU’s position that connecting the Facebook posts on Barnett’s page with his suspension is an invasion of the privacy of the disciplinary process, and thus a violation of university policy.

In accordance with advice from the SPLC, we proceeded to write the story. At press time, it was not clear what course of action the university would take.

The article written by Nikki Hagger of the Collegian can be found here and concludes with this:

On top of that, the administration then threatened and bullied the Collegian for investigating the matter, blatantly hampering freedom of the press. While TU is a private school, the school’s Statement on Rights, Freedoms, and Responsibilities states that, “the rights of free inquiry and free expression … shall not be infringed upon.”

TU said that the Collegian might violate university policy but failed to cite the policy or policies at issue. If the administration disciplines the Collegian like they disciplined Trey, it will be because it did its job as a student newspaper.

What happened to Trey should be offensive to every student’s basic sense of justice. Every single one of us would expect to be accorded due process. Anything less gives the lie to TU’s virtuous, neighborly self-image and makes me question my decision to come here.

I’m disappointed in you, TU.

The Fire weighed in by saying:

TU students are right to be concerned about their free speech and due process rights, given the university’s sheer vindictiveness in banishing Barnett and its treatment of their student newspaper,” said [Director of the Individual Rights Defense Program Peter] Bonilla. “We’ve warned TU about its dangerously overbroad harassment policy before, yet it continues to fly in the face of its promise that students retain ‘the rights and privileges granted to all citizens in the Bill of Rights.’ The university needs to be held accountable for breaking that promise.”

There are a lot of people who would be more than “disappointed.” A place of higher education is where ideas should be shared and examined – not stifled by throwing people out of school or threatening journalists because they reported on the school’s heavy handed tactics – tactics which are contrary to the school’s own polices and procedures.

When institutions think they are above the rules, they become dangerous to those in the community.

Such despotism should never be allowed to stand.

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