We have another controversy over the regulation of speech on college campuses this week. Thaddeus Pryor has been suspended and banned from Colorado College for two years after he sent an anonymous reply on social media that was meant as a joke. Regardless of the fact that the joke was insulting and decidedly unfunny, it was an anonymous comment made by a student on the social media site Yik Yak without the use of university equipment or involvement. As such, it raises serious free speech implications in my view.
In November 2015, Thaddeus Pryor sent an anonymous reply to the comment “#blackwomenmatter” on Yik Yak. Pryor’s response read, “They matter, they’re just not hot.” After posting the comment, Pryor was summoned to the office of Senior Associate Dean of Students Rochelle T. Mason. He did not lie and admitted to being the author of the posting.
The anonymous comment was deemed by the college as violating its rules on “Abusive Behavior” and “Disruption of College Activities” policies. The school invoked the right to punish any speech that ” produces ridicule, embarrassment, harassment, intimidation or other such result.” That is remarkably sweeping when it included embarrassment or “other such result.” Not only was he suspended and banned from campus but he was barred from taking classes at other institutions for academic credit. Pryor has appealed his suspension.
The College is not a state actor so it is not covered by the First Amendment. However, that does not lessen the free speech implications of a college regulating and punishing the speech of students or faculty on social media. There appears little consideration of the free speech implications in this decision or the definition of a line for students to determine when a comment, even an anonymous comment, could be deemed embarrassing or produce “other such result.” The result is a chilling effect on speech that is inimical to our academic mission in my view.
What do you think?