If you’re just tuning in to this story, Oregon’s Lewis & Clark College is receiving criticism from FIRE, the media, and its students and faculty for the college’s punishment of two students based on remarks overheard at a private party and reported to campus authorities. Amidst the turmoil over FIRE’s revelations of its misguided and illiberal punishment of the two students, Lewis & Clark has stonewalled its faculty and only gone so far as to tell FIRE that it “may” respond to our numerous concerns.
The saga at Lewis & Clark began on November 23, 2013, when two Lewis & Clark College students—one white and one African-American—were overheard making racially-themed jokes at a private party on campus. The African-American student, during a game of beer pong, jokingly named his team “Team Nigga” and called out the team’s name when scoring a point. When a white friend of his greeted him in jest with an inside joke of theirs, saying, “How about a ‘white power’?” the African-American student replied in kind, “white power!”
A student not present at the party overheard the banter between the two students and reported it to Lewis & Clark’s Campus Living Office. After the college’s Campus Safety division investigated the students, questioning them about their choice of language both at the party and around campus in general, Lewis & Clark charged the students with numerous conduct violations. The college eventually found them guilty of, among other charges, “Physical or Mental Harm” and “Discrimination or Harassment, determining that they had “contributed to the creation of a hostile and discriminatory environment.”
Last month, FIRE sent a letter to Lewis & Clark, thoroughly documenting the college’s violations of the students’ rights and asking for the students’ punishment to be reversed. Lewis & Clark’s general counsel “responded” on May 1, saying only:
The President’s office has referred your letter to me for review. I may be back in touch when that review is completed.
Lewis & Clark may be staying silent on the issue, but they’re about the only ones doing so. In addition to FIRE, outlets like The Oregonian, Willamette Week, and KATU.com have reported on and criticized Lewis & Clark’s handling of the case. Caleb Diehl, managing editor of Lewis & Clark student newspaper The Pioneer Log (which has also covered the case in depth), took to The Oregonian in a guest column criticizing the college’s “resistance to dialogue.” Forty Lewis & Clark faculty members likewise sent an open letter to the college chastising the college for its silence as well as for its “questionable treatment of free speech and of our students’ right to due process.” FIRE’s Peter Bonilla spoke to Betsy Hammond of The Oregonian and discussed Lewis & Clark’s lack of respect for students’ free speech rights:
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.”
Lewis & Clark must recognize that its heavy-handed response is a blatant violation of its students’ rights, and that its silent refusal to address the concerns of the campus community further erodes confidence in transparency, fundamental fairness, and expressive rights on campus. Hopefully a more substantive response will be forthcoming from Lewis & Clark soon that will begin to address our concerns and win back the confidence of its students and faculty. As always, we’ll keep Torch readers posted.