‘Inside Higher Ed’ Quotes FIRE’s Shibley on University of Alabama Controversy

By on February 11, 2011

Inside Higher Ed‘s Allie Grasgreen reports today on the ongoing controversy gripping the University of Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus, where a white fraternity member reportedly shouted racial epithets at an African-American student last week. Covering the university’s response to the incident, Grasgreen quotes FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley:

While the university’s Black Faculty and Staff Association issued a statement calling for "swift and exact disciplinary action against the accused perpetrator" who shouted the slur, others were not keen on the message that Witt delivered – or the lack of information in it. "It’s dangerous to give racist language too much power by treating it like Lord Voldemort, where it can’t be named," said Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "College students are adults and they have the right to know the information about what’s happening on their campus. Withholding that information is counterproductive."

Although colleges can and do get rid of instructors and board members for using racial epithets, their options for handling students are more limited. On a public university campus, racial slurs are protected under the First Amendment until they reach the point of harassment, Shibley said. (Fraternities, which are private entities, are free to punish as they see fit.) To reach that point, the harasser would have to create an environment that interferes with the harassed student’s ability to get an education. "People have the right to be racist," he said. "They’re now having a discussion about that, but it’s that discussion that’s actually going to forward the cause of harmony on campus. Not some sort of punishment of people with unpopular or racist views."

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