FIRE, a first amendment watchdog group, contacts college to protect student’s free speech

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a First Amendment watchdog group centered in Philadelphia, sent a letter to Geneseo on Friday April 19 criticizing how the college handled a pair of Snapchats a student sent on April 1 that referenced blackface. FIRE argued that the investigation the college announced could create a “chilling effect.”

The college declined to respond to the letter’s substance. 

“We do not have anything to add to this story,” Director of Media Relations Monique Patenaude said in an email statement. 

FIRE argued on behalf of “Maddie,” urging that any ongoing or future investigations be terminated to protect free speech cited under the First Amendment.

An attorney from the SUNY system responded to FIRE to say that they had “never investigated, nor planned to investigate, any student for discipline in this case.”

Despite the email response, FIRE was still concerned with the college’s initial reactions to the incident, including sending law enforcement to the student’s door, according to The Lamron’s interview with “Maddie.”

In the college’s initial email, sent on April 2, President Denise Battles stated that the incident was being dealt with as more information was being found.

“Please know that the matter has the full attention of the College’s leadership. Members of the College administration were immediately notified, and the situation is currently under investigation,” Battles said in the email.

Although no further investigations are occurring, FIRE emphasized the fact that any legal charges would not hold up in court.

FIRE cited several Supreme Court Cases that have “repeatedly held that the First Amendment protects speech that challenges and offends,” such as DeJohn v. Temple Univ. from 2008. 

The watchdog group referenced the resolution from this case saying, “free speech is of critical importance because it is the lifeblood of academic freedom.” Although the incident was not in a classroom, free speech is still protected on public campuses where students are learning, no matter the setting.

In the college’s April 12 follow-up email, Battles does not mention any further investigations, instead explaining that discussions were being held and support was being provided.

Battles went on to say that she hopes the college will continue to expand programs educating the students. 

“I genuinely hope that our continuing discussions and collaborative actions will lead to substantive improvements to our campus climate,” Battles said in the email. “We each have a role to play in fostering a diverse and inclusive community, and so it remains more important than ever that we support, educate and engage one another.”

In addition to supporting “Maddie’s” free speech, FIRE explained that they wish to protect all speech, including the college’s responses.

“So, too, is Geneseo’s administration free to join members of its community in condemning or criticizing Maddie’s expression. These consequences are ‘more speech’ responses to offensive expression,” FIRE’s letter said.

Overall, while the college has since handled the issue without infringing on FIRE’s mission to protect the First Amendment, their letter has set the precedent against any legal action for other future incidents that may occur. 

Managing editor Malachy Dempsey contributed to this article.