On May 25, 2022, eight American University law students learned that they were being placed under investigation for allegedly harassing and threatening another student, following an online discussion about a leaked US Supreme Court opinion in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson, which would later reverse precedents enshrining the constitutional right to an abortion.
On May 2, a student posted the leaked Dobbs opinion to an online group chat forum used by first year American University law students, triggering a heated discussion. The majority of students on the chat apparently favored abortion rights, with some questioning whether Dobbs would give way to the reversal of other Supreme Court decisions ensuring fundamental rights. One student, identifying himself as “deeply religious” and a Republican, challenged those views, leading to a short online debate.
The latter student subsequently reportedly filed a complaint with the university against eight others on the chat, alleging that he had been harassed and threatened because of his political affiliation and religion. While the chat (which is archived online here) was heated at times, it does not reflect any other student mentioning the complaining student’s religion, or threatening or otherwise harassing him. Nevertheless, on May 25, the school’s Equity and Title IX Office notified the eight students that they had been placed under investigation for sending “harassing and threatening messages” to the complaining student over a group chat which “unreasonably interfered with [his] educational experience.” On July 7, 2022, the investigation was concluded, and the students were cleared of any wrongdoing.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about disciplinary actions or investigations brought against students in response to nonviolent, responsible expression. Even where they end in a finding that the accused students were not at fault, such actions are unduly burdensome and disruptive, and have a chilling impact on on-campus expression. University authorities have an obligation to protect and promote academic freedom, and should refrain from commencing investigations likely to chill academic expression absent a clear evidentiary basis for doing so.