Syracuse, NY – A Syracuse University law student accused of harassment says the investigation itself has turned into a punishment with no trial.
Len Audaer, a second-year law student at Syracuse University's College of Law, found out a month ago that the school is investigating him for harassment.
Audaer was informed that he could face serious charges of violating the school's honor code, after complaints from un-named students about an anonymous blog called SUCOLitis.
He was asked to meet with the faculty prosecutor assigned to the investigation, Prof. Gregory Germain, who said he could not discuss the case due to student confidentiality.
Audaer says Germain had already decided that Audaer was the blog's author.
"The first thing the faculty prosecutor said to me was that we were there to talk about my web site," says Audaer. "As I said to him then, what do you mean my web site? Why are you forming that conclusion?"
While Audaer has never claimed any connection to the blog, he also refuses to confirm or deny writing it. He says that is not an issue because he believes that no violation occurred.
"In which case I don't think I should be asked to say if I had anything to do with I, nor should anybody else," Audaer says. "I think that's the beginning of a witch hunt."
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, agrees.
Adam Kissel, FIRE's vice president of programs, says he read the entire contents of the blog and found nothing close to harassment, which he says has been very clearly defined by the United States Supreme Court.
"Simply having their names mentioned in a satirical way, in obviously fake news on a fake news blog, comes nowhere close to the level of severity and pervasiveness that's required as behavior to count as pure harassment," Kissel says.
The organization took action by writing a letter to SU Chancellor Nancy Cantor and SUCOL Dean Hannah Arterian stating that "the content of the blog was not in any way harassment and that investigating any student for the content of the blog was an unacceptable violation of Syracuse's own contractual and moral obligations to freedom of speech that it makes to its students," says Kissel.
The organization contends that SUCOL should immediately end its investigation of the blog, should apologize to Audaer, and should stop trying to punish protected expression.
FIRE received a reply letter from Dean Arterian on November 10, dated November 1.
The letter, posted on the website thefire.org, says the school's investigation of Audaer is not yet completed.
Meanwhile, "the student remains under a cloud of prosecution for something very serious and the investigators don't seem to be taking him very seriously," Kissel says.
"I have never heard any of the allegations against me nor who made them, nor exactly what they are," says Audaer. "I've just been told the investing is ongoing."
Audaer, while still waiting to find out whether he will indeed be prosecuted, says it is alarming to find that the school apparently has no obligation to "observe any standard of due process," he says.
"They can end this whenever they feel like it with an arbitrary decision, they can not end this at all, they can have this drag on and on and on until I leave, and right now that's something that I honestly feel like doing," Audaer says. "I don't feel comfortable in my own law school anymore."
He says he has gone from being an extremely active student-- the school's student representative to the American Bar Association and a leader of several student organizations-- to registering for as few credits as possible next semester and fearful of going into the buildings.
Audaer says one's law school has considerable power over one's future employment prospects. "So this could hang over me forever. And that feels to me like they're using the trial as a punishment," he says.
Kissel says at this point, the school is in violation of Audaer's rights. "It's a very disappointing kind of investigation where this student is being told that he is under investigation for harassment but it seems that very little due process is being offered to this student," he says.
"So, I think the right thing to do is to give Syracuse a very short amount of time to make its final dccision and then we'll continue to intervene and keep the case in the public eye," Kissel adds.
"What we find always to be a good strategy is that universities won't keep trying to do in public what they try to get away with in private. So the attention of people who believe in students' rights is very important in a case like this one."