U.S. university reverses suspension of journalism student after public outcry

By Alejandro Martínez

The State University of New York at Oswego drew criticism this week after it suspended – and later readmitted – a journalism undergrad student for misidentifying himself when contacting sources for a school assignment, Poynter reported. Many observers considered the response overly harsh.

Last month, Alex Myers, an Australian exchange student, contacted several hockey coaches by e-mail for a story on SUNY Oswego hockey coach Ed Gosek. In his e-mails, Myers identified himself as a member of the university’s office of public affairs, where he had recently interned. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Myers sent out the following e-mail:

My name is Alex Myers, I work for the Office of Public Affairs at SUNY Oswego.

I am currently writing a profile on Oswego State Hockey head coach Ed Gosek and was hoping to get a rival coaches view on Mr Gosek.

If you have time would you mind answering the following questions.

1. How do you find Mr Gosek to coach against?

2. Have you had any interactions with Mr Gosek off the ice? If so how did you find him?

3. What is your rivalry like between your school and Oswego State?

Be as forthcoming as you like, what you say about Mr Gosek does not have to be positive.

One of the recipients, Cornell coach Michael Schafer wrote back and called that last line “offensive,” said FIRE's Will Creely in a column for The Huffington Post. The next day, SUNY Oswego President Deborah Stanley delivered a letter to Myers informing him he had been placed on interim suspension from the university and had to leave his dormitory that afternoon. He was charged with “dishonesty” and “disruptive behavior,” which includes defamation, harassment, intimidation and threats.

Myers sought help from FIRE, which wrote a letter SUNY’s Stanley challenging the university’s charges against Myers.

“To be clear: SUNY Oswego’s allegation that Myers’ emails could constitute defamation, threats, intimidation, or harassment is without merit, and all charges stemming from this allegation must be dismissed,” FIRE’s letter said.

According to Poynter, the university later readmitted Myers and, as an alternative punishment, asked him to write an apology to coach Gosek and his choice between an article for the school paper or an essay for one of his courses explaining what he had learned from the experience.

In his Huffington Post column, Creely defended Myers by saying: “Like any journalism major worth his or her notepad, Alex Myers […] was just trying to get a few good quotes.”

Nick Graziano, managing editor of SUNY’s student newspaper The Oswegonian, told Poynter: “A lot of people, especially myself, think it was an overreaction by the school. He made a mistake by saying he was with the Office of Public Affairs. I feel like I’ve seen worse cases than that. I’ve seen people make up quotes before, and all they had to do was write an apology letter.”

According to FIRE, “universities around the country have shown a dangerous tendency to conflate protected speech with unprotected true threats” in recent years.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.