Editorial – School fumbles with free speech rights

Social media has developed a large gray area over what qualifies as “freedom of speech” and what can be labeled as offensive.

Posts filled with controversial opinions over numerous topics are made daily, yet there has been no way of controlling them. Texas Christian University tried to take control of this issue after tweets from a student were brought to the school’s attention, but its handling might have made the issue even worse.

Illustration by Brittany Luman/The Collegian
Illustration by Brittany Luman/The Collegian

Student Harry Vincent produced a series of tweets speaking out against Islam and the Baltimore riots. The tweets came to the university’s attention by a Tumblr user in Maryland, Vincent’s home state, who knew Vincent from middle school.

The university sent Vincent a letter on April 29 accusing him of violating two Student Code of Conduct provisions, specifying “infliction of bodily or emotional harm” and “disorderly conduct.” The letter then ordered an apology be made and for Vincent to determine his punishment.

Vincent hired a lawyer and appealed on the grounds of freedom of speech, which was rejected by the university. The school delivered his punishment as a suspension in abeyance, allowing him to only attend classes or use academic facilities through the year as well as a disciplinary probation through his graduation year.

The case became public when the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education began fighting on Vincent’s behalf. The ruling changed after TCU chancellor Victor Boschini reviewed the case and deemed the punishment too harsh. Vincent tweeted that he had been reinstated with the suspension lifted and disciplinary probation intact for only one academic year. TCU has stated it can give no comment about the case, citing the Family and Education Privacy Act.

Now, Vincent’s tweets weren’t appropriate by any means, but his statements were no worse or better than the hundreds of tweets doled out daily. He did not affiliate himself with TCU in any way through his Twitter or social media. He was not speaking on behalf of the school, and TCU more than likely would have never seen those tweets had the administrators not been told about them. Why then did TCU take such an extreme stance on such an everyday occurrence?

As a private institution, TCU is not bound to follow the First Amendment for freedom of speech. But, rather than set an example to correct Vincent for his statements, they went to such an extreme that it made Vincent into a martyr for the social media idea that all speech is free speech. TCU’s mistake took the spotlight away from the offense of Vincent’s tweets and instead labeled the university as the oppressor of freedom of speech.

To then go from such an extreme to lifting the majority of the punishment makes the message TCU was attempting to send a very confusing one. Rather than set an example for other institutions, TCU showed how not to handle issues like this.

Everyone has an opinion, and everyone will disagree. Plenty of people have and will tweet comments similar to Vincent’s and largely there will be no consequences for what they say. The point is to set an example as to what happens when the line is crossed and how institutions should handle that. TCU’s mismanagement of that issue turned the focus from what Vincent actually said to how extreme his punishment was.