Fort Worth

TCU, student at odds over comments on social media

A TCU student says he’s been unfairly disciplined by the university for making comments about current events on social media after some complained that his choice of words was offensive.

Harry Vincent said he was placed on “suspension in abeyance” — meaning for the next year he can only attend classes at the university or visit the school library but is prohibited from living on campus, activities like attending games, and must drop out of his fraternity.

He said he was placed on disciplinary probation until his graduation from TCU and ordered to perform 60 hours of community service and to take a course on issues in diversity.

“I was in shock,” Vincent, 19, said Thursday in a Skype interview from his Maryland home.

“I can’t believe that speaking your mind and saying something that might offend someone would really get me kicked out of school. Because, to me, I am being kicked out of school. I’m not going to school solely to learn. I’m there for the college experience, to make friends, to have a good time.”

In a statement released Thursday afternoon, TCU said it could not discuss the details of a student’s disciplinary process due to the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

“TCU expects its students to behave in a manner consistent with its mission, which is to educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in a global community,” the statement reads. “When students’ conduct violates the university’s behavioral standards, they are subject to a disciplinary process, and will be held accountable for their actions.”

Vincent accuses a childhood acquaintance of sparking the investigation after she posted screen shots on her Tumblr page of comments Vincent had made on social media, mostly Twitter, that she deemed “disgusting and offensive.”

The comments, made between December and April on Twitter and Facebook, were made in response to current events, including the Baltimore riots and spread of the Islamic State.

They included: “#Baltimore in 4 words: poor uneducated druggy hoodrats,” telling someone they’d been reincarnated as a “b-----” (a slur against Mexicans) and remarking, “Almost as tan as a terrorist. Going to be thoroughly disappointed if I’m not racially profiled on my trip to gulf shores.”

The woman shared Vincent’s name and social media handles and urged her followers to contact TCU and “expose him.”

“You can email TCU and tell them that he’s shedding a bad light on their university,” she wrote, including the university’s phone number and campus life email.

Vincent said his comments were taken out of context and were not racist. He said he stands by his remarks except for the slur against Mexicans, which he says he didn’t realize was derogatory.

“That tweet I deeply regret,” Vincent said. “Coming from the East Coast, I had never heard the word b----- before. One of my friends actually said it. I wrongfully, obviously, thought it was funny so I tweeted it.”

Vincent said he received a letter April 29 alerting him that the university had received information about two possible student conduct code violations — infliction of bodily or emotional harm and disorderly conduct — but giving no further details.

Vincent said he met with Glory Robinson, associate dean of students, on May 1, where he first learned the alleged violations involved social media comments. He elected to have the matter decided by Robinson and not a formal hearing before a disciplinary panel.

“I understand being called into the dean’s office if someone tweeted something and it offended somebody,” Vincent said. “I understand that the dean would call me into her office and say, ‘Hey, look, I’ve gotten a couple emails. This has offended some people. Can we tone it down on social media?’

“But I had absolutely no idea that just for speaking my mind, for talking about current events, that I would be punished as severely as I have been.”

Vincent appealed the sanctions imposed by Robinson. A TCU appeals panel upheld Robinson’s decision after a July 16 hearing.

Now a group aimed at defending individuals rights at college campuses has taken up Vincent’s cause, accusing TCU of trampling Vincent’s rights in order to appease an “angry internet mob.”

On Wednesday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, sent a letter to Chancellor Victor Boschini, saying it was “deeply concerned by the threat to freedom of expression posed by the disciplinary action and asking for the university to reverse the sanctions.”

“If students must fear disciplinary action for offending any person, at any time, in any place, they will reasonably decide that is it safer to remain silent rather than discuss important issues, to the detriment of their own development and education as well as the TCU community,” the letter states.

FIRE, based in Philadelphia, states in the letter that TCU “is both morally and contractually bound to honor the explicit, repeated, and unequivocal promises of freedom of expression it has made to its students.”

It said such promises are addressed in the university’s judicial system policy and demonstration guidelines in the student handbook.

Vincent said he’ll probably not return to TCU if the sanctions remain in place.

“Principally, I cannot fund an institution that does not allow me to exercise my constitutional rights. It’s just absurd,” Vincent said. “I would have such a problem paying the large sum of money that it costs to go there and then not be able to say what I want to say.”

Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655

Twitter: @deannaboyd