Suspended for Spouse's Statements?

U. of Tulsa suspended a student last semester over offensive comments made on Facebook. But those comments never came from his account.

February 13, 2015

The University of Tulsa has suspended a student over offensive Facebook posts that were written by his husband.

George “Trey” Barnett was banned from campus last semester until 2016 over the posts, which criticize two faculty members and insult a fellow student. If he returns to campus after his suspension, according to the university’s final decision in the case, he will not be permitted to complete his theater degree, nor will he be allowed to transfer theater credits from another university to Tulsa. He was 16 credit hours short when he was suspended.

None of the Facebook posts came from Barnett’s account, according to a faculty member’s formal complaint against him. Instead, they were posted by the account used by Christopher Mangum, then Barnett's fiancé, who tagged Barnett in the statements. The posts referred to the professors as unprofessional, immoral and unqualified, and to the student as “morbidly obese.” Mangum, who is not a student, later submitted two sworn affidavits to the university saying he was solely responsible for the posts.

The university disagreed, saying Barnett was using "the 'Chris did it' defense to avoid consequences." 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.

In a statement Thursday, Peter Bonilla, director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the university’s decision was concerning. FIRE has long criticized the free speech policies at the University of Tulsa, which, as a private institution, is not covered by the First Amendment.

“Punishing someone for the speech of a friend or relative might be par for the course in a dictatorship, but it has no place on our nation’s college campuses,” Bonilla said.

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.

Last month, Tulsa denied Barnett’s appeal, saying that his arguments “are without merit” and that no further appeal would be possible. Bradley Shear, a lawyer who focuses on social media law and public policy, said the punishment sends a troubling message.

“To hold a student accountable for someone else’s actions is not really the best type of policy, and you have to wonder what else this would lead to,” Shear said. “How fast is fast enough when removing the comments? Can you be held responsible if you’re tagged in a Twitter post, as well? Where are you going to draw the line?”


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