Free speech org petitions Syracuse University over 'bystander' policy

Speech First started a petition aimed at getting Syracuse University to reverse changes to its Code of Student Conduct.

The new changes allow punishment for "assistance, participation in, promotion of, or perpetuation" of harassment.

Syracuse University is under fire by one free speech organization after it added ambiguous language regarding discrimination and harassment to its Code of Student Conduct

Speech First sent a petition to Syracuse, asking it to reverse its amended policy, which now states that “bystanders and accomplices can be held accountable” for forms of harassment.

The reasoning for the change goes back nearly a year when students began protesting the university’s response to incidents of vandalism and racist graffiti on campus. 

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After more incidents of racist graffiti were found on campus several days later, students participated in a “sit-in” and the group became known as #NotAgainSU. The students had a list of demands including punishment for the individuals responsible for the vandalism and graffiti.

The list of demands included calls for the university to “institute a clause in new faculty and staff contracts that requires mandatory diversity training,” “revise the current Anti-Harassment policy to a zero-tolerance policy for all hate speech,” and “agree to the allocation of $1M for the creation of a unified, required curriculum that educates students on diversity issues, specifically anti-racism.”

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On July 10, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Keith A. Alford posted on the school’s website that #Not Again SU students were rightfully demanding change, and announced updates to the Code of Student Conduct.

The post listed 16 changes, including one to revise “the code to make clear when bystanders and accomplices can be held accountable.” 

The Code of Student Conduct contains a new addition, which states that “assistance, participation in, promotion of, or perpetuation of conduct, whether physical, electronic, oral, written or video, which threatens the mental health, physical health, or safety of anyone,” is a violation of the code. 

A version of the code in April did not contain this language.

Speech First President Nicole Neily said the vagueness of the new policy is concerning.

“It’s unclear how Syracuse will define ‘promotion of’ conduct-maybe a retweet or share on social media? What about ‘perpetuation of’ conduct? Would refraining from jumping into a heated brawl make someone an accomplice?” she asked in the petition to the university.

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Neily also sent a letter to Syracuse University Chancellor and President Kent Syverud stating that the policy needs to be fixed.

“As President of Speech First, I write to urge you to reform your policies to better protect student speech on your campus. As you are no doubt aware, Syracuse has been repeatedly criticized for actions it has taken regarding free speech,” Neily added. 

Neily told Campus Reform that while Syracuse is a private institution, it should still protect free expression: “While Syracuse is a private institution - and, accordingly, isn’t bound to uphold the First Amendment - it should give both current students and prospective students pause that the school preaches respect for free expression, yet doesn’t do so in practice. This is tantamount to false advertising, and would appear to run afoul of the Trump Administration’s executive order on free speech.”

Campus Reform reached out to Syracuse University for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication. 

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