Suspend First, Ask Questions later

By Wendy Kaminer      

        Hamline University prides itself on its commitment to diversity.  Its website boasts that “Hamline’s five schools have more than 4,500 students, and each one of these students is different …Hamline isn’t a place where you ‘fit in,’ conforming to the Hamline mold.  Rather, Hamline ‘fits in’ you, welcoming your unique contributions and valuing who you are.”  “Unless you’re an advocate for gun rights,” Hamline administrators might have added.  Hamline suspended graduate student Troy Scheffler shortly after he sent two emails to school officials deriding the university’s ban on concealed weapons and suggesting that lifting the ban would help deter school shootings.  In order to be considered for re-admission, Scheffler has been required to undergo a psychological evaluation.

        The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has protested the school’s action, noting that Scheffler was suspended without due process for expressing an opinion and that mandatory psych evaluations are serious violations of liberty.  (Harvey Silverglate is co-founder and chair of FIRE; I serve on its advisory board.)  A full account of the controversy and copies of the emails between Scheffler and school administrators are posted on Fire’s website; Declan McMcCullagh has also posted an excellent report on Scheffler’s case.

        In its defense, Hamline has claimed that Scheffler’s emails were threatening.  The emails do reflect great disgust and include racist, sexist remarks, but they do not even arguably qualify legally as threats.  (Read them for yourselves at  Hamline also claimed that Scheffler’s suspension was prompted by “critical input” about him “from various members of the Hamline community.”  Oh.  Who said precisely what about Scheffler?  That’s a secret, even from Scheffler.  Of course he can’t defend himself against secret accusations from anonymous sources, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Hamline administrators that he should have had an opportunity to defend himself before being suspended, or that he should be allowed one now. 

        American colleges and universities have a shameful history of violating student speech and due process rights; that’s why FIRE was founded over a decade ago.  But post 9/11 and post Columbine and Virginia Tech, there is obvious, increased tolerance for swift and summary punishment, or banishment, of students who scare people, for good reason or not.  (How can we evaluate the reasons to fear Scheffler when the university won’t disclose them?)  Administrators are probably fearful not just of violence but of bearing responsibility, and liability, for violent attacks that occur on their watch.  (The Cleveland high school student who shot 4 people at his school before killing himself had allegedly uttered explicit threats against the school that a few of his classmates tried to report.)

        I don’t envy school administrators who bear the burden of deciding how or when to treat students who threaten or frighten their peers.  I understand their better safe than sorry attitudes.  Fear of school violence is not irrational; and, in any case, fear is more productively addressed with compassion than contempt.  But so are concerns about liberty.

        What is troubling about the Hamline case is not the fear of violence that it reflects, but the utter contempt for civil liberty.  Somehow I seriously doubt that Hamline would have put its students at risk by providing Scheffler with a chance to defend himself, instead of summarily suspending him.  I even doubt that administrators believed that they would have put students at risk by respecting Scheffler’s rights.   It just doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that he had any.

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