Free speech experts slam university for policy requiring “respect for authority”

LIU Spokesperson, Gordon Tepper went on-the-record in reference to the flyers, “sexist trash” that “speak[] to a disturbed individual.”

Student senator of Long Island University Post, Jake Gutowitz was under investigation for alleged possession and distribution of forbidden flyers.

A student at Long Island University Post was gearing up for his May graduation when he found himself under investigation for alleged possession and distribution of forbidden flyers that broke a rule against “respect for authority.” The case has now caught the attention of free speech advocates who say the policy violates its students’ rights to free expression.

Student Jake Gutowitz was called to a meeting with Associate Director of LIU Promise Nicole Thomas, who claimed the flyers went against the LIU Ethos Statements regarding “respect for authority” and were a violation of LIU Post Code of Conduct. 

The flyers were part of a series labeled “Common Sense” and appearedon campus throughout the school year. The series featured satire and criticism of University President Kimberly Cline, as well as complaints regarding administration, mold in buildings, high administration salaries, poor campus food quality, and restrictions on freedom of speech. LIU Spokesman Gordon Tepper called the flyers, “sexist trash” that “speak[] to a disturbed individual.

Gutowitz says he was aware of the flyers but did not have anything to do with their creation or distribution.

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Upon meeting with Thomas and Assistant Dean of Students Jean Anne Smith, Gutowitz was told that the meeting had been called after a report from “anonymous student” that Gutowitz was behind the fliers. The administrators informed Gutowitz that the meeting was part of the standard process after receiving such a complaint, and that that he would receive a letter at a later date informing him of the results of their investigation.

Gutowitz indeed went on to graduate without ever having received a formal resolution from LIU Post. Now, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is calling on the university to address the open-ended investigation and it says chilled the speech of an innocent student as he approached his graduation. 

“First, the allegations against Gutowitz were unfounded and concerned conduct that occurred months before he was accused. LIU Post’s choice to investigate this alleged conduct only months later, and when nearing the eve of his graduation, had a serious chilling effect on his speech. Gutowitz himself was rightly concerned the investigation could affect his ability to graduate,” wrote FIRE.

FIRE explains that while there is no evidence that Gotowitz created the fliers, that the existence of the investigation itself threatens free expression on campus as, “Administrators obviously found some of the flyers offensive, but punishing subjectively offensive expression is antithetical to LIU Post’s promises of free expression”

LIU Post did not respond to FIRE’s letter, and there is still continued concern that the pattern of recent violations will continue. 

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Gutowitz suspects he was targetted due to his frequent, public, and non-anonymous criticism of administration “After the editor of the newspaper was berated by administrators, we wrote a letter and published it in the newspaper demanding an apology from administration,” Gutowitz told Campus Reform

“After that, the administration did their best to come after us. It[investigation] alleged that five months before then, in December of 2018, a student claimed to see me handing out the pamphlets,” Gutowitz explained, adding that he “proved that I wasn’t even on campus the day the student claimed to see [him].”

“They told me I’d have a response by the end of the day. To this day, I’ve never gotten a response,” said Gutowitz.

Nicole Neily, President of student free speech organization Speech First, told Campus Reform that investigations like this should cause major concern for the state of free speech on campus. “It’s deeply disappointing that LIU Post would actively work to chill student speech. The school’s actions sent a message not only to Mr. Gutowitz, but to the entire student body: criticize us at your peril,” said Neily.

“This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a ‘respect for authority’ provision in a student code, and I find it absolutely absurd,” Neily added. “Universities are places where students are supposed to not only get a degree, but to learn how to function in society- and holding officials accountable by speaking truth to power (particularly when an administration seems to merit criticism!) is an attribute that more citizens should hone.” 

Like FIRE, Neily pointed out apparent hypocrisy between LIU Post’s purported support for free speech “while failing to uphold that value in practice,” adding that this is “something that high school seniors who might be considering attending the school should take into consideration.”

LIU did not respond to request for comment.