Controversial Tweets Ignite Free Speech Battle at Texas Christian University

Free speech rights are a tricky balance at private universities, particularly ones with religious affiliations.

by Jeff Mosier, The Dallas Morning News / August 3, 2015

(TNS) — A Twitter fight with a Maryland woman has left a Texas Christian University student on probation and banned from most campus activities at a college he considered his new home.

The family of Harry Vincent, 19, and an advocacy group are trying to pressure TCU to respect students’ free speech rights and reverse its punishment of Vincent. The family has even considered whether to sue.

But free speech rights are a tricky balance at private universities, particularly ones with religious affiliations, experts say.

“Private universities are not subject to the constraints of the U.S. Constitution,” said Ari Cohn, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is lobbying on Vincent’s behalf. “But they are morally obligated to uphold the promises of free speech they make to students.”

Private school factor

Robert O’Neil, former president of the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin system, said public institutions have to tread carefully not to violate students’ First Amendment rights. However, private, religiously affiliated colleges have almost no constraints — other than public, student or alumni backlash — on their ability to punish students for speech.

A private university is “free to — as least as far as the law is concerned — to do whatever it wants, to expel a student for whatever reason,” O’Neil said. “It’s unlikely that a court would intervene.”

Vincent’s penalties were the result of six tweets, including ones slamming Islam, using a derogatory term for Mexicans and saying “hoodrat criminals” in Baltimore should be shipped to the Sahara Desert. Vincent, who is unsure if he’ll return to TCU, said he wasn’t referring to race in those tweets, some of which were made about protests and riots over the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in police custody in Baltimore.

“It was more about political statements than anything else, and it got twisted into race,” said his father, Scott Vincent.

He said this could have been a teaching moment for the school and his son. Instead, his son is being pushed out of a place where he felt at home.

“It seems more like policing than educating,” Scott Vincent said.

Holly Ellman, a university spokeswoman, declined to say much about the case and explained that “we just don’t talk about student matters.”

She did point to the school’s Code of Student Conduct and said those who do not “live up to these values” can face suspension or expulsion.

School statement

The Fort Worth university, which is affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), provided a written statement. “Texas Christian University’s mission is to educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community,” the statement said. “We are always disappointed when any member of our community fails to behave in a way that aligns with our mission.”

Vincent said he took TCU seriously about its core values, including “personal freedom” and a “heritage of tolerance.”

“Personal freedom allows a student to voice his opinion about the Baltimore riots,” he said. “Personal freedom allows a student to speak about his opinion on the religion of Islam and ISIS. Personal freedom allows a student to critique the actions of the president of the United States. I’m being punished for exercising my personal freedoms.”

Vincent said the university’s “heritage of tolerance” should include tolerance of all viewpoints and not just politically correct ones.

Eric Posner, a University of Chicago law professor, wrote about speech codes for Slate.com and generally endorsed them.

“My argument was that college students need protections that adults can do without because they are (usually) young, and (often) not mature enough (yet) to flourish without them,” he wrote on his website. “They go to college because they need an education, and one thing they need to learn is how to interact with people.”

The dispute

The complaint against Vincent originated with the Tumblr account of a 19-year-old from Maryland named Kelsey. Vincent, a conservative from suburban Baltimore, sparred with the liberal Kelsey over politics and current events on Twitter.

Kelsey urged her followers to contact TCU to complain about Vincent’s tweets and “expose him” and “tell them that he’s shedding a bad light on their university.” She was contacted by The Dallas Morning News through her Tumblr account but did not respond.

“He isn’t alleged to have actually caused harm to anyone from TCU,” Cohn said. “He was simply guilty of having offended various people half a country away on the Internet.”

Vincent agreed to write an apology after he was told that fighting the accusation could potentially lead to expulsion, his father said. Getting kicked out of a university could make it difficult to get accepted to another.

In his appeal, Vincent said that he accepted responsibility for his actions but also said that the punishment was “grossly disproportionate” and that student handbook procedures weren’t followed. He argued in his appeal that TCU officials never explained how his tweet violated a code that forbids everything from sexual assault to hate crimes to bullying.

Part of the debate over Vincent’s social media comments resulted from a clash between two portions of the student handbook. One supports the rights of free speech and another says discrimination and harassment are incompatible with TCU’s mission.

Where’s the line?

Cohn argued that universities — particularly ones that espouse a respect for free speech — need to have a great appreciation of how difficult it is to draw the line in cases like these.

O’Neil, who is also a constitutional scholar and senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said the social media aspect probably played a role in the punishment. He said tweets and Facebook posts should be treated like other speech but aren’t.

“There is a tendency to exaggerate the importance or impact of statements that appear on social media, such as the ones for which Mr. Vincent has been charged,” said O’Neil, who also called this a “bizarrely complicated case.”

The complaints about Vincent also came at a time when racist comments were being made on the TCU campus via the anonymous, location-based social media platform Yik Yak. Similar racist comments were made at many other colleges nationwide, generally in connection with the Baltimore unrest.

Vincent said he doesn’t use Yik Yak and had nothing to do with that controversy. But he said he’s very cautious now about his use of social media and willingness to debate people online.

“If I had been more articulate in my tweets, then who knows?” he said.

His father said this incident has been a harsh introduction to the outside world.

“I think this experience is more than he could have gained from a year in college,” Scott Vincent said. “I don’t think anyone should have to have this experience the way he did and the way he was treated. Welcome to the real world.”

©2015 The Dallas Morning News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.