By Betsy Hammond at The Oregonian
A national university free speech group says Lewis & Clark College grossly overreacted by disciplining two students for using racially offensive language during a small, late-night private party in a dormitory suite last fall.
In its zeal to root out racism on campus and ensure no student hears anything offensive, Lewis & Clark ran roughshod over the First Amendment and due process rights of students who were joshing around and hurt no one, Peter Bonilla, program director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told The Oregonian.
At the time, Lewis & Clark administrators were under pressure to act to prevent further harm after a series of anonymous racist graffiti postings, some aimed at particular students of color, appeared on campus.
But there were better, legal ways to react and improve campus inclusivity and cohesion than to suppress free speech that fell far short of harassment, Bonilla said.
The group’s claims on behalf of the students were first reported by The Pioneer Log student newspaper.
Contacted for comment Thursday, the college’s communications office indicated that school officials did not wish to say anything.
The First Amendment group gave this account, based in part on university investigative and disciplinary documents:
Two friends of different races, both football players, joined in a drinking game at the party, held on a Saturday in November shortly after the end of football season. The African American student jokingly named his team “Team Nigga” and shouted that whenever his team scored a point.
Drawing on a long-running joke between them, the pair also had a short two-sentence exchange along the lines of “Can I get a ‘white power?’” “White power!”
No one at the party got upset or complained. But from outside the closed-door event, a resident of the dorm overheard what sounded to that student like one voice saying the N-word repeatedly and then a different voice asking, “Can I get a white power?” Upset, that student reported the incident to the dorm’s hall adviser.
An investigation and hearing ensued. Although the students were interviewed and given documents only about the events at the party, the college review board hearing also delved into other incidents in which the pair were alleged to have used racially inflammatory language.
Based on their actions at the party and earlier, both students were found responsible for all the violations with which they were charged, including recklessly causing physical or mental harm or reasonable fear thereof; creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment; and engaging in disorderly or disruptive conduct.
That finding was made by the college review board, made up of students and faculty members, and upheld on appeal by administrators.
Both students had written reprimands entered into their college record, were put on five- to 13-month probation during which they could face severe discipline if they break any campus rules and are required to complete “bias reduction and bystander intervention” training.
Bonilla said he did not know, and The Oregonian could not determine, what else the two students were alleged to have said and what evidence, if any, the university presented.
Campus living director Kelly Hoover and Associate Dean of Student Engagement Tricia Brand wrote in turning down the students’ appeal, “Your use of racially charged language, intentional or not, was reckless and created an environment where others in the space felt it was necessary to correct your behavior. More broadly, your actions caused reasonable apprehension of harm to the community.”
That upset the university freedom group, which often goes by its acronym, Fire. Fire’s legal program officer, Ari Cohn, sent Lewis & Clark President Barry Glassner a six-page letter last week calling on Lewis & Clark to undo the discipline.
The college “betrayed its institutional promises of free expression and abandoned fundamental fairness in its disciplinary proceedings,” Cohn wrote.
As a private college, Lewis & Clark is not bound by the First Amendment, but it is bound by promises it makes to students in its policies and written materials, Bonilla said. And Lewis & Clark does promise students in its freedom of expression policy that members of the community are free to discuss all issues and express opinions publicly and privately, he said.
Lewis & Clark fell short, something that is common when universities feel the tension inherent between promoting civility, diversity and inclusion, and protecting free speech, Bonilla said.
“There is this creeping sense that it is a university’s job to protect its students from being offended,” he said. “It’s not. A university is a haven of free ideas. There should be a lot of room to be offended and have our ideas challenged.”
His group has gone to bat for students disciplined for handing out copies of the Constitution, but does so for those who use the N-word as well, an example of what free speech advocates sometimes call “lower value expression,” he said.
Bonilla said several underage students drank beer at the party, but he said he was unsure whether any were disciplined for that. The university communications office did not respond to that question.
Bonilla said if there was action taken against illegal drinking, it wasn’t nearly as significant as the discipline for the students’ speech.