Friday, February 27, 2009

FIRE's Failure at NYU

Will Creeley of FIRE has written a disturbing defense of NYU suspending students without a hearing. I cannot believe that this actually fits with FIRE's philosophy at all.

These students have been declared persona non grata: that means they're not only suspended but entirely banned from stepping foot on campus. And they're not only banned from campus, but evicted from their homes, all without any disciplinary hearing. (It's rather bizarre for Creeley to excuse this because they are offered other university housing--if they're really a threat to the University, why would they be less of a threat in another university apartment building?)

Creeley writes: "Insofar as the students were physically occupying University property in an action that was presumably designed precisely to disrupt 'public order,' this seems like a reasonable application, and it is difficult for the occupying students to argue that such a punishment isn't authorized by NYU's code."

Creeley has got this completely wrong. The students were not occupying any property when they were suspended. They were suspended as punishment for previously occupying property. The right to suspend must apply only to a reasonable expectation of future threats, not to past actions. Otherwise, NYU could suspend anyone suspected of any violation of the rules because they violated "public order."

Secondly, Creeley offers no criticism of NYU for having an extraordinarily vague code allowing suspension. Instead, he gives us the kind of circular reasoning that FIRE usually mocks: "because NYU's policies provide for summary suspension of students engaged in such activities, it is difficult to argue that they have been mistreated by NYU." If NYU had a speech code allowing students to be suspended for offensive speech, would FIRE argue that it's acceptable to suspend students because NYU policies allow it? Of course not. So why is FIRE failing on this issue?

Creeley is mixing up two issues: the legal rights of students at a university, and the moral rights. He might be right (although I disagree) that NYU is not violating its own legal obligations by suspending the students. However, it is obvious that NYU's rules are a violation of the standards of FIRE ("immediate danger to persons or property") for suspension. FIRE routinely criticizes private colleges that have vague and poorly interpreted rules, even when they are legal. So why isn't FIRE criticizing NYU's policies?

It's true, as Creeley notes, that student protesters must be willing to suffer the consequences of illegal action. But it's also true that they should never be punished BEFORE a legal hearing finds them guilty.

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