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Syracuse suspends student orientation leader for hosting scavenger … – Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

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Syracuse students gather for a sporting event.
The Syracuse University Orange is one of the few athletic programs named after a color, personified by the bright, cheery Otto the Orange mascot. But when it comes to free speech, this university is closer to the bleak hellscape of Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange” than its exuberant, fruity mascot. This time, Syracuse suspended a student for hosting a campus scavenger hunt.
In August, student Orientation Leader Eriendeep Uppal helped organize an optional campus scavenger hunt for fellow OLs, awarding points to those who dared lick the Abraham Lincoln statue, barrel-roll down the Carnegie steps, or kiss an orientation leader on Syracuse’s famous Kissing Bench. This camaraderie-building exercise was a brief, fun respite for the OL team as they worked hard to help incoming students move into their dorms, to answer questions from families about campus life, and to coordinate events to help acclimate students to college life.
While her fellow OLs thoroughly enjoyed the experience, Syracuse administrators — apparently allergic to all things joyous and merry — inexplicably charged Uppal with hazing and “threaten[ing] the mental health” of others. But among more than 50 students Syracuse interviewed about the event, administrators found no one physically or mentally harmed by the activity. One student even testified how much she “enjoyed her experience participating in the [scavenger hunt] activity, including kissing another OL (who she knew) on the mouth on the kissing bench.” Students affirmed that at no point did they feel pressured, compelled, or forced to partake in the scavenger hunt or any of its tasks, which were completely voluntary. 
Nevertheless, Syracuse found Uppal responsible for the charges and suspended her until the 2023 summer term. For this so-called “hazing,” Uppal must also fulfill 45 hours of community service, complete a decision-making assignment, and create an “Anti-Hazing Information Program,” among numerous other conditions for readmission. Apparently brainwashing was not an option. 
Uppal decided to fight back. She shared her story with FIRE and we were shocked, SHOCKED, to see Syracuse — one of the nation’s worst schools for free speech and shameful recipient of FIRE’s 2021 Lifetime Censorship Award — suspend yet another student for exercising expressive rights. This is the school that used the same nebulous ban on causing mental harm to punish a female student for asking a man if he was a sex offender, and to dismantle an engineering fraternity for its private, satirical roast.
Only at Syracuse would administrators derail an upstanding student leader’s academic career over a harmless, voluntary scavenger hunt. 
In our December 22 letter to Syracuse, we explained how the university’s clear, written, public commitment to free speech protects Uppal’s right to host expressive events such as scavenger hunts. Filed together with Uppal’s appeal, our letter spells out why her actions fall far short of Syracuse’s definition of hazing or of threatening mental harm.
Only at Syracuse would administrators derail an upstanding student leader’s academic career over a harmless, voluntary scavenger hunt. 
Syracuse alleged “the task where OL’s were asked to kiss another OL on the mouth on the ‘Kissing Bench’ creates an environment where some OL’s may feel peer pressure resulting in emotional trauma or confusion,” because “[k]issing someone is a personal decision which should not be influenced by other individuals or a group.” Administrators also claimed the scavenger hunt “could lead to sickness, or hospitalization, and fractures or broken bones,” because “the Abraham Lincoln statute [sic] placed on Syracuse University campus in 1968, is unsanitary,” and “if a person were to roll down Carnegie steps they could be severely hurt or injured.” 
According to the university, Uppal’s mere listing of such activities “caused a substantial risk to the mental and physical health of the fellow OL’s.” Even assuming the farcical task of rolling down a large, concrete flight of stairs was taken seriously, Uppal did not pressure anyone to take this risk. Likewise, no student felt the alleged “emotional trauma or confusion” of kissing someone on the mouth on the Kissing Bench — an activity Syracuse itself encourages for students in love.

In what world is merely listing optional scavenger hunt activities considered hazing? Also, why are university administrators instructing adult college students about proper kissing etiquette? What year is this? 
Ignoring the absence of any pressure, Syracuse sustained its hazing charge on some OLs potentially feeling pressure from Uppal’s actions. Yet those very same OLs testified that Uppal is “deeply personable, caring, and good-natured,” “bubbly, genuine, and caring,” “an incredible leader and anchor for the team who helped make sure we were a cohesive team,” and “lifted the overall demeanor of the team.” 
With Uppal’s appeal pending, Syracuse has a golden opportunity to reverse this egregious violation.
When questioned by Syracuse investigations, dozens of OLs explained how she “comfort[s] anxious parents and warmly welcome[s] freshman to campus,” “create[s] a positive culture for the organization,” and does “her best to make others feel like the best versions of themselves even if she didn’t feel too good.” Other OLs told administrators “Her work ethic is uncanny and her ability to make anyone feel comfortable is unwavering,” and that “it would be a devastating injustice for the school to . . . persecute[] [Uppal] for doing nothing but providing joy and a safe space for all of us on the OL team.” 
Despite the overwhelming evidence of Uppal’s excellent character and dedicated service to the campus community, Syracuse branded her a hazer and derailed her academic career. 
Over the years, Syracuse has earned its dystopian reputation for free speech, punishing students for parody blogs, satirical skits, Halloween costumes, Facebook comments, sharp questions, words they didn’t say, and now, scavenger hunts. Is this “Clockwork Orange” university intent on sterilizing campus of all expression unpalatable to squeamish administrators? How long until Syracuse starts reconditioning students into forgetting this school “is committed to . . . protecting the free speech rights of the members of its community”?

With Uppal’s appeal pending, Syracuse has a golden opportunity to reverse this egregious violation of an upstanding student leader’s free speech rights. FIRE urges Syracuse to make 2023 the year it finally wakes up and shows its students its free speech promises are not completely worthless. 
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).
FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.
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