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If at First You Don't Succeed, Sue

At ten minutes past three on the afternoon of January 22, a penniless, jobless, and nondegreed former Florida Atlantic University student named Gary Snyder sat down at a conference table across from the most powerful man on campus and began issuing instructions.

"Please state your name for the record," he began.
"Anthony James Catanese," came the answer from the man who has served as president of the university for nine years.

"I will not be asking you any questions to harass, irritate, or embarrass you. Now, having said that, you will probably find this process to be all of those."

In a literal sense, this was just one more deposition in a increasingly litigious world. But there was something resonant about this particular proceeding. It represented the partial victory of one determined individual over nameless bureaucracies and immovable institutions.

For five years Snyder has devoted himself full-time to pursuing a quixotic federal lawsuit against the university he blames for short-circuiting his education. He has put his post-undergrad life on hold while living at home with his parents and taking on thousands of dollars in debt to pursue his legal quest.

Snyder claims the university is withholding his degree in retribution for his actions as an FAU student in the early '90s, when he circulated petitions criticizing instructors and policies in one of the school's foreign language departments. By not granting him his degree, FAU has violated his constitutional right to free speech, he says.

Over the past year, however, Snyder has tilted at one legal windmill after another. Last summer the judge disallowed monetary damages against the university. In September Snyder's pro bono attorney, Richard Ovelman, dropped him as a client two weeks before the start date for trial. Ovelman says the split was due to "differences over a broad range of issues."

Faced with the choice between dropping the suit and pressing on, Snyder pressed on. "There was a time when I wanted to be an attorney," he admits. "In fact, I wanted to focus on First Amendment law."

But instead of chasing his dream at New York University School of Law, he's now fighting to keep his lawsuit alive. December brought more bad news. First the judge quashed Snyder's attempt to gain access to a mountain of university documents; then the university moved to throw the case out of court. The judge's ruling on that motion is pending.

Snyder doesn't have much hope at this point, given the "disrespectful" way the judge cut him off during last week's hearing. "I was a little disappointed that he would do that to me," Snyder says.

In a way, though, Snyder feels that he's already triumphed. Victory came the day he forced Catanese to sit down and, against his will, submit to a game of verbal dodge ball. "Gary was able to depose Catanese? That's amazing!" laughs Ovelman.

The tone of the deposition was set from his opening question: "Are you taking any medications?" From there it got personal.

Snyder: Were you the president of FAU in the fall of 1990?
Catanese: Yes.
Snyder: What were your responsibilities as such?
Catanese: I was the president of -- what are my responsibilities?
Snyder: Yes.

Catanese: My responsibilities are defined in Florida law. You're certainly free to look into them. But I'm responsible to operate the university for the Board of Regents, according to their rules and regulations.

Snyder: Are you a hired hand then?

Snyder's malice stems in part from his impression that the university never took him seriously. It's not hard to see where he gets this impression. Lynn Laurenti, university spokesperson, responds to questions about Snyder by probing the questioner's motives: "It's curious to me why a serious newspaper would be interested in this."

Laurenti says the matter is simple: Snyder doesn't deserve a degree because he hasn't fulfilled the school's foreign language requirement. In order to graduate, students must complete eight credit-hours of study focusing on a single foreign language, and Snyder hasn't done that. "We are not in the business of giving out degrees that have not been earned," she says.

For his part Snyder says FAU should waive the requirement because it was the school's fault that he couldn't fulfill it in the first place. Snyder's first course in German was taught by a part-time graduate student who had never taught before and who, according to court records, hasn't taught since. Near the end of the semester, eight stu-dents signed a petition complaining that the instructor was disorganized and unresponsive.

Snyder says department officials promised that students would get help in the second required course in the sequence. When that help wasn't forthcoming, Snyder withdrew. In 1993 he petitioned for a waiver of the foreign language requirement based on the allegation that the university's negligence had left him unprepared for the second course. After the Academic Petitions Committee denied his request, Snyder sued.

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Paul Belden

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