U Arizona backtracks after punishing student for criticizing school COVID policy

A student at the University of Arizona was punished for criticizing the university’s COVID-19 protocols online.

He was also forced to pay for and take a “personal responsibility workshop.”

After Campus Reform contacted the university, the sanctions were dropped.

The University of Arizona backtracked after punishing a student for criticizing the school’s COVID-19 health and safety policies online.

On the nineteenth anniversary of 9/11, University of Arizona undergraduate Jacob Orsay created a school-approved, outdoor memorial on campus with several friends. After finishing the memorial, Orsay and his friends removed their masks to take a picture.

On September 14, Orsay received an email from the Dean of Students’ office, stating that he had violated the university’s code of conduct for posting “negative views regarding COVID-19 health and safety protocols.” The email separately stated that “the Dean of Students Office also reviewed a September 11th photograph that allegedly shows Jacob Orsay not in compliance with University of Arizona COVID-19 health and safety policies.”

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The email said that such behavior violated the student code of conduct in the areas of “endangering, threatening, or causing harm to any member of the university community.”

U of AZ backtracks after punishing student for criticizing school COVID policy by Campus Reform on Scribd

Orsay had previously responded to a comment on Reddit noting that he and his friends had failed to wear masks during the 9/11 event: “It’s less than 10 people. Chill out.”

Orsay spoke to the university on September 19 to explain his actions. He was also forced to explain a group message that he had previously created which, according to Orsay, was a joke meant to criticize the university’s COVID policy.

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A few days after Orsay spoke to the university on September 19, he received an email stating that he would receive a “COVID-19 monetary sanction” of $250. Orsay was also forced to complete a “personal responsibility workshop” for an additional $90.

In the September 19 email from Senor Coordinator in the Dean of Students Office Richard Salazar, Salazar noted that an “aggravating factor” was that Orsay had met with a university representative once this semester already for a post he made online.

”It should be noted that an aggravating factor is present in this case as you had already met with this investigator via telephone this semester regarding your online posts pertaining to the University of Arizona’s COVID-19 health and safety policies,” the email read.

Orsay was placed on probation as a result.

“Given your online communications and behavior during the September 11th memorial, your willful disregard of university policy posed a threat to our community,” said the email. “Your interaction with fellow students during the September 11th memorial showed a willful disregard of University of Arizona health and safety policies related to COVID-19.”

However, University of Arizona Associate Vice President of External Communications Pam Scott told Campus Reform that the university’s guidelines regarding face coverings include “no basis or element… that provide for any sanctions based on comments or other speech.”

She said that the “University of Arizona fully supports free speech and free expression.”

On November 3, the same day that Campus Reform reached out to the University of Arizona, the school sent another email to Orsay, stating the September 23 letter “inaccurately and incorrectly” listed a prior discussion with Orsay for “online comments/postings” about the school’s COVID-19 policies as an “aggravating factor.”

”With respect to the sanctions issued by the Dean of Students Office, my September 23, 2020 adjudication letter incorrectly and inaccurately stated that this investigator’s prior discussions with you regarding your online comments /postings about the University’s COVID-19 policies and guidelines was an aggravating factor. This was an error and I apologize for the mistake,” the email said. 

The email also said that the university cannot punish a student for their opinions alone.

”The University cannot and does not consider a student’s beliefs, views, or opinions about University policy (or other issues) when determining whether a student violated the Code of Conduct or when determining an appropriate sanction.”

The November 3 letter did not dismiss Orsay from any of the prior sanctions, even though the university rescinded the “aggravating factor” for which Orsay was punished.

On November 20, the university completely backtracked and took away all sanctions that were initially placed on Orsay, noting that the financial sanctions would be refunded.

”While you were in violation of the University’s Face Covering directive and the Dean of Students Office finding of responsibility stands, in light of the miscommunication, I believe an appropriate, good faith decision is to rescind all of the original sanctions and instead issue a Warning,” Kendal Washington White, Vice Provost for Campus Life and Dean of Students wrote in the email. 

”You will receive a new letter noting that you are in Warning status,” the email continued.

Orsay did receive a warning for failing to comply with the university’s face covering policy, but that came with no sanctions.

Orsay told Campus Reform that he is thankful for the university dropping all of the sanctions initially placed on him.

”I am pleased that my sanctions were changed but I believe no student should have to go through this ordeal. It is important to stand up for your rights, especially as a student,” Orsay said. ”None of this would have been possible without my Administrative Hearing Advisor John Dalton, who is also Chairman of Legislative District 9. It is important to have advocates like him to help navigate the insanity of college bureaucracy. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @BenZeisloft