FIRE Asks Lewis & Clark Trustees to Revoke Punishment for Students’ Protected Speech

November 24, 2014

Despite warnings from FIRE and criticism from media outlets and 40 faculty members, Lewis & Clark College (LCC) still has not rescinded its punishment against two students who were unjustly charged with, and found responsible for, “Physical or Mental Harm,” “Discrimination or Harassment,” and “Disorderly Conduct” for supposedly “racial and biased” comments. Last week, FIRE sent a letter to LCC’s Board of Trustees asking, once again, for the disciplinary action to be rescinded.

For Torch readers needing a refresher, problems arose at LCC a year ago when two students and members of the football team—one white and one African-American—were overheard making the aforementioned “racial and biased” comments at a party.

The offensive verbal exchange was an inside joke between the two friends, with one student greeting the other by saying, “How about a ‘white power?,’” and the other replying, “White power!” The African-American student was also overheard jokingly exclaiming “Team Nigga” every time his beer pong team scored a point.

The student who overheard the comments was not present at the party (the comment was overheard from outside) but still reported them to LCC’s Campus Living and Campus Safety divisions. Campus Safety officers then interviewed the students, who were accused of “contribut[ing] to the creation of a hostile and discriminatory environment.”

Instead of realizing that jokes between friends do not even come close to the legal standard for student-on-student harassment, LCC decided to expand the scope of its investigation to include any and all instances of allegedly biased language made by the students and within the football program more generally. LCC’s overreaction to the students’ protected speech was likely motivated by criticism of the administration’s handling of several incidents involving racist expression on campus. The students were found guilty of all of the charges against them, including “Physical or Mental Harm,” “Discrimination or Harassment,” and “Disorderly Conduct,” placed on probation, and required to take part in “Bias Reduction and Bystander Intervention Training.”

The students contacted FIRE, and on April 18 FIRE sent a letter to LCC President Barry Glassner calling for the college to rescind the students’ punishment. LCC General Counsel David Ellis’ 22-word reply said the school “may be back in touch” after reviewing FIRE’s letter.

FIRE isn’t holding its breath, and our most recent letter asks LCC Trustees to step in and protect students’ rights, given the LCC administration’s apparent refusal to do so:

The wrongly punished students in this case—and by extension all LCC students—deserve better than Ellis’ dismissive response. LCC has displayed a lack of regard for the principles of free expression and a willingness to undermine due process to achieve its desired ends—a course of action with chilling implications for the fundamental rights of LCC students.

Given the LCC administration’s apparent unwillingness to fulfill its duty to protect the free speech and due process rights of its students, it is incumbent on the LCC Board of Trustees to do so in its place. We ask that the LCC Trustees see that the unjust charges and sanctions against these two students are dismissed and expunged from their student records. Further, we ask that the Trustees work with the administration to ensure that LCC will not use its disciplinary process as a tool for waging campaigns to eliminate “offensive” speech at the expense of students’ basic rights.

Stay tuned to The Torch for what will hopefully be the last update in this unfortunate saga.

Schools:  Lewis & Clark College

Cases:  Lewis & Clark College: Two Students Guilty of ‘Harassment’ for Racial Jokes at Party