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As student appeals suspension over hearsay, university engages in damage control

School incorrectly cites federal law to avoid disclosing alleged mistakes

As a University of Denver student appeals her suspension over hearsay accusations of using racial and homosexual slurs, the school maintains that there’s been misunderstandings reported about the case, but wont say exactly what.

On June 8, The Fix reported on the case of Addison Puffer, a freshman student at the University of Denver, who received a quarter-long suspension after being accused of using racial and homosexual slurs. Nearly all of the testimony of Puffer’s alleged conduct was based on hearsay from students in her dorm hall. Puffer maintains her innocence and has appealed her punishment.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education backs Puffer, with its Vice President for Policy Research Samantha Harris writing a letter to campus officials pointing out that the case against the student lacks first-hand accounts, and describes the suspension as “based almost exclusively on hearsay and gossip.”

After recounting 13 separate instances where witnesses declared they never heard Puffer use the n-word or “fag,” Harris wrote: “If Addison Puffer may be suspended because some people said that other people said that she said offensive things, then students at DU have no free speech rights at all.”

More recently, after local Denver news outlets picked up on the story, the university claimed initial reports on the matter contained “factual errors,” but the school will not clarify what those errors are, and the university has incorrectly cited federal law as a justification for not outlining the errors.

In reporting on the suspension, FIRE and The Fix had access to the full report, including the decision and appeal documents.

Asked for comment at the time of The College Fix’s initial report, Denver University Vice Chancellor Lili Rodriguez replied: “As I hope you can appreciate, we respect the privacy of our students and do not comment on student matters. We are ethically and legally bound to protect that privacy.”

Several days later, when reporting on the story from The Fix, ABC7 in Denver received a statement from the university which read: “For the privacy of our students, we cannot speak about specific students or cases. However, factual errors have been made by outlets reporting on this incident.”

The College Fix reached out to the university via email for information about the alleged errors. A school spokesman responded: “[T]he Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) does not allow the University of Denver to comment about a specific student and/or matters involving a student…For the privacy of our students, we cannot speak about specific students or cases. However, factual errors have been made by outlets reporting on this incident.”

Though asked for clarification multiple times, the university would not provide The Fix with specific examples regarding the “factual errors” within the report. Reached via phone on June 15, university spokeswoman Madeline Phipps told The Fix she would speak to the university’s legal team and call back. At press time, no such follow-up had taken place.

Though the school apparently cited FERPA in order to avoid commenting on the specifics of the alleged errors, the federal law does not actually prohibit universities from sharing such information. According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, FERPA prohibits educational institutions from disclosing “personally identifiable information in education records” absent the consent of the student in question. The law does not prohibit universities from sharing information so long as students are not identified.

In the initial article, the only student who was positively identified was Puffer, who had reached out to The Fix.

Puffer’s suspension has not been the only controversial decision taken by DU’s administration recently. In January, the school’s unofficial mascot Boone was effectively banned from campus by the institution via a ban on masks, prompting outrage from alumni.

In fall 2016, the school placed restrictions on a campus “free-speech wall,” and investigated a student and Young Americans for Freedom for “hate speech,” after students pushed back against Black Lives Matter messaging.

MORE: University suspends student after ‘some people said that other people said that she said offensive things’

MORE: College that canned professor after she mocked white people won’t say why they fired her

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