Actions may speak louder than words, but in the age of social media, the opposite may be true.
Since Tuesday, Stetson University College of Law has been under fire after a video of student making racially insensitive comments surfaced online. Although Stetson leaders announced on social media that they were aware of the “disturbing” posts and said they were actively looking into the situation, angry tweets and Facebook comments demanding action continue to flood the school’s social media pages. A Change.org petition calling for the student’s expulsion got more than 120 signatures between Tuesday and Thursday. Stetson officials have not made any additional public statements since their June 28 post, and did not respond to repeated requests from the Catalyst for comment.
The backlash raises the question of what responsibility schools should take when one of their students engages in hateful behavior online, where it can live on forever through screenshots and retweets.
Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman, an associate professor of sociology at University of South Florida, said that universities across the country will increasingly have to navigate First Amendment rights about free speech as they strive to promote a culturally inclusive and anti-racist campus.
“The main question is, how can the university express a commitment to anti-racism and not punish students who engage in racist hate speech?” she said. “On one hand, it is the university’s responsibility to provide a space to engage in restorative conversations and host discussions that are intended to provide learning opportunities for students. However, racist aggression, racist threats directed towards a specific student, hate speech, or comments that endanger the life of a student should be punished swiftly and harshly.”
In the case of the Stetson student, Hordge-Freeman said that “as incredibly offensive as I find it,” the comment may not meet the definition of a threat, but added “it is hate speech.” If the student’s comment violates Stetson’s code of conduct, suspension or expulsion should be on the table, she said.
According to the school’s conduct code, “Students are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that supports the College of Law’s educational mission. Examples of inappropriate conduct include using obscenities or using degrading, abusive, or offensive language or gestures, except when discussing such matters from an academic perspective.” The code also notes that harassing or discriminating against others within the college community based on race or color could result in disciplinary action. Sanctions range from written warnings to disciplinary probation. Expulsion is not mentioned, aside from a reference to being removed from college-owned housing.
The document goes on to say that any finding of a violation may be reported to any board of bar examiners or similar organization for any bar to which the student applies. Students should also be aware that most bar applications require the disclosure of any sanctions imposed on them.
Hordge-Freeman said that university policies and the consequences for violations are often not clear, although she expects that to change.
“In the near future, and as a reflection of growing anti-racist initiatives, I anticipate universities will adopt stricter codes of conduct with clearly specified consequence so that they can respond when these codes are violated,” she said.
Joanna E. Ellwood, Associate Dean of Community Standards, Title IX and Section 504 Coordinator at Eckerd College, said that Eckerd’s Equal Opportunity, Harassment and Nondiscrimination policy prohibits racially insensitive comments online because it covers all forms of discrimination and harassment for faculty, staff and students. All students are provided these community standards in a handbook and sign an agreement to abide by them annually.
“We do not monitor social media for student comments, but when they are brought to the administration’s attention, community standards policies and procedures begin,” she said.
Eckerd has no set sanctions for what would happen in terms of a student found to be making derogatory comments online, Ellwood said.
“It would depend on the allegations, the incident and the facts established through an investigation” she explained.
Krista Haraway, an incoming first-year student at Stetson from Alabama, authored the Change.org petition addressed to Dean Michèle Alexandre and the Stetson University College of Law. She said she had mixed reactions to the school’s response to the situation, although in her petition, she voiced disappointment on behalf of her classmates in having to discover the issue through social media rather than directly from the school. She plans to update the petition Thursday with news about the growing demands of the Stetson community since the petition was created. She said she received a “half-hearted explanation” of the situation during an online workshop for incoming students Thursday, adding that none of their demands have been met to their satisfaction as of yet.
“I understand Stetson is doing what they can. I understand due process. I understand the law must work for both sides,” she said. “But when you have money to throw at a problem – like blatantly being a racist and getting caught – and you cannot be publicly held accountable by an institution, you have a privilege that needs to be dismantled immediately.”
In addition to expulsion, Haraway said she would like the school to denounce its affiliation with the student and to draft an apology to the student body for not keeping them more informed.
“For students of color, their comfort and safety is at stake,” she said.
In a Facebook comment on Stetson’s page, Jose Estrada, a 1997 graduate who practices law in Tampa, called for the school to stand up against discriminatory behavior.
“I say that the school should strictly enforce its policy of zero tolerance towards racism,” he wrote.
Schools across the country are grappling with the issue of discipline for students who make offensive online comments. A student at the University of South Carolina is “no longer enrolled” after an investigation uncovered she’d made racist remarks on social media. Marquette University rescinded an offer of admission for a student whose offensive Snapchats regarding the death of George Floyd went viral.
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