By Robby Soave at Reason Online
On April 17, University of Mary Washington student Grace Mann was strangled to death insider her off-campus home. The authorities swiftly apprehended her alleged killer, Steven Vander Briel—an on-again off-again UMW student and one of Mann’s roommates.
As it so happens, Mann was an active member of the campus’s Feminists United Club (FUC), and Vander Briel was (supposedly) a former member of the rugby team. Considerable bad blood existed between the two groups, and in the weeks leading up to Mann’s death, members of FUC had faced a torrent of verbal abuse and threats on Yik Yak, an anonymous social media site. In May, attorneys for FUC filed a Title IX complaint against UMW with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights for failing to protect the group from sexual harassment and cyber bullying.
To the casual observer, the case may seem like a slam dunk. All too often, these Title IX complaints are based on little more than hurt feelings and insensitive language—but a UMW student really did die a horrible, tragic death. Certainly, the fact that she was a member of FUC who had been threatened on Yik Yak can’t be written off as a mere coincidence.
And yet, the full story is considerably more complicated. First, it doesn’t appear that the rugby team—which was disbanded by the university (in part, due to FUC’s complaints) prior to Mann’s death—had anything to do the murder. In fact, a rugby team leader made a good-faith effort to reach out to FUC leader Paige McKinsey only to have her interpret it as a threat and report him to the university. Second, Vander Briel was allegedly never an active member of the team, and official records turned up no evidence that he actually played any games. Third, correspondence between McKinsey and the university suggests that administrators went out of their way to accommodate her demands, and only balked when compliance would mean violating other students’ First Amendment rights.
Last November, FUC ramped up its advocacy efforts; group leaders met with UMW’s Title IX coordinator, Dr. Leah Cox, about their desire to see the university hire a full-time sexual assault coordinator. On November 23, an off-campus house party galvanized the group. The party, deemed a rugby team event because it took place at a residence unofficially known as a rugby house, involved the singing of a highly offensive chant that included lyrics alluding to the rape of dead whores, according to Jezebel. Shock, rather than malice, seemed to be the point: the song has existed in various forms for a long time, and was inspired by Irish “pub” songs. Other such rugby songs mock Jesus in equally disgusting terms. In other words, it’s hard to argue that the song was actually a veiled threat against UMW women.
But the campus feminists were furious. Members met with the administration and demanded action. The university expressed concerns about the chant but didn’t appear to do anything, which led McKinsey to pen an op-ed in the school newspaper alleging that UMW was “not a feminist friendly campus.”
According to FUC’s complaint, the op-ed “led to an escalation of verbal and cyber-attacks on members of Feminists United and others perceived to be feminist.” Many of these alleged attacks were posted on Yik Yak, which prompted the group to request that the university block the app from campus servers.
One of the most interesting developments came on February 20, when the president of the rugby team approached McKinsey in a dining hall. According to the complaint, he introduced himself and said, “I wanted you to know that we are open to talk whenever.” McKinsey responded by reiterating her request that the rugby team stop using the chant; the rugby captain then left.
McKinsey told a different story to Jezebel:
In March, McKinsey told Jezebel that she’d been approached by the president of the rubgy team and several of his teammates after the op-ed came out; the president, as she recalled it, said, “We’re open to chat whenever you want to,” and that she responded that she wasn’t interested in meeting. But Kingkade’s story has a different version of events, one where McKinsey says she explicitly asked them to stop using the chant and they ignored her: “When McKinsey replied that all she wanted was for the team to stop using the song, she said, he walked away.”
McKinsey did not respond to a request for comment seeking clarification.
In either case, she left the encounter feeling “extremely unsettled,” according to the complaint, and quickly reported it to Cox. “While this does not seem concerning at face value,” she wrote in an email to Cox, “when I couple this interaction with the anonymous yaks and comments made against me, situations like this make me feel deeply unsafe as I have no way of knowing if some of these men wrote those yaks or comments. I was just hoping to know that administration is still planning on taking some sort of action.”
McKinsey’s expectation was sexual harassment training for the entire rugby team—even though the rugby team had nearly 50 players, only 8 of whom attended that party.
In the following weeks, FUC made repeated demands for meetings and concessions from the university. University President Richard Hurley personally assured McKinsey that he would be taking action against the rugby team. He also offered to meet with FUC. On March 18, he sent an email to campus in which he criticized “repugnant and highly offensive behavior” but did not specifically attribute such behavior to the rugby team. This again drew FUC’s ire. Hurley assured them that privacy laws prevented him from publicly discussing what sanctions, if any, had been taken against the rugby team. FUC told him that his privacy concerns “appeared to be unreasonable,” and chided him for taking so long to issue a punishment.
The following day, it became public knowledge that the rugby team had been formally disbanded by the university. All members of the team were required to attend sexual assault training. This prompted a wave of criticism of FUC on Yik Yak, and several activists—including McKinsey and Mann—felt endangered.
A week later, FUC emailed Hurley to demand another meeting. “Many of us feel immensely unsafe at UMW,” the email read. “We also feel, unfortunately, that the administration has not done enough to support us, or to help handle the current situation.”
They did not get the meeting with Hurley, but did sit down with several other administrators. They made the following demands of the administrators: disable Yik Yak on campus, “be more transparent and continuous in their communication,” clarify publicly that the feminists did not make the decision to disband the rugby team, and hold a mandatory assembly “to explain rape culture.”
The university did not meet any of these demands (other than the one they were clearly already meeting: continuous communication)—and for obvious reasons. Disabling Yik Yak would be a clear First Amendment violation, according to the university’s lawyers.
Members of FUC again met with university administrators on April 8 and 15. Hurley attended at least one of those meetings. McKinsey pressed her case that the Yik Yak threats had made her feel unsafe and the university was required under Title IX of the Higher Education Act to mitigate the sexually hostile environment that the feminists found themselves living under.
Grace was murdered—allegedly by Vander Briel—on April 17. The complaint describes Vander Briel as a former member of the rugby team. A current member of the rugby team who spoke to Reason on condition of anonymity told me that there was no record of him every playing an official game. I obtained partial records from USA Rugby confirming that he played no games for at least the last ten years.
Vander Briel, 30, was enrolled at the university from 2002 to 2006, and then left. He reenrolled for the 2007-2008 school year, and dropped out again when he was just two classes away from graduating with a degree in political science. He returned to campus this year to take spring courses and was renting a room in Mann’s house. He and Mann were not involved in a romantic relationship, and there is no known motive for the crime.
It’s possible that there was some wider conspiracy or hidden motive beyond Vander Briel’s alleged actions. But absent any evidence of that, it certainly seems like FUC’s complaint conflates a number of separate issues. The Yik Yak conversations, though frequently disgusting, aren’t something that the university has the right to shut down. As a spokesperson for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (which was identified in FUC’s complaint as a defender of verbal harassment) told me in a statement:
As a state institution, the University of Mary Washington is right to conclude that blocking access to a website or app because of its content presents First Amendment concerns. If online speech rises to the level of incitement or “true threats,” law enforcement should take action.
FIRE takes issue with the complaint’s characterization of our work defending free speech on campus. Demanding that public colleges honor their students’ First Amendment rights is not “defending harassment.” When it comes to the First Amendment and harassment, FIRE’s position is identical to that of the Supreme Court of the United States. As the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights—the federal agency responsible for enforcing Title IX—made clear in a recently reaffirmed 2003 “Dear Colleague” letter, “to be prohibited by the statutes within OCR’s jurisdiction, [harassment] must include something beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive. . . . No OCR regulation should be interpreted to impinge upon rights protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or to require recipients to enact or enforce codes that punish the exercise of such rights.”
Mann’s death is a terrible tragedy, and it’s worth considering what—if anything—could have prevented it. But we know who to blame, and it sure isn’t the rugby team—an institution that was disbanded over essentially nothing—or the broader campus climate, or a highly accommodating university administration. It’s the man who killed her.
Schools: University of Mary Washington