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Babson College Finds Students Not Responsible for Harassment in Post-Election Speech Case

Two Babson College students have been found not responsible for student conduct charges relating to their post-Election Day drive through the campus of Wellesley College, FIRE has confirmed.

During that drive, Babson students Edward Tomasso and Parker Rand-Ricciardi displayed a “Trump 2016” flag and shouted pro-Trump slogans, choosing the campus of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s alma mater to gloat about their candidate’s electoral victory. After an investigation by Babson officials was unable to substantiate allegations that the students spat at Wellesley students and used epithets, FIRE wrote to Babson College explaining why the students’ political speech—the only remaining conduct at issue—could not serve as the basis for harassment and disorderly conduct charges. Today, we’re pleased to learn that Babson’s disciplinary process has cleared the students of the charges against them.

As the Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen noted, allegations of the students’ conduct seemed to take on a life of their own:

Their obnoxious gloating seemed like the impulsive, deliberately provocative act of a couple of immature college kids. But by the time the story got retold second and third-hand on the third rail that is social media, the two offenders sounded more like hooded Klansmen than hoodie-wearing college kids.

The claims on social media became part of the narrative in stories that appeared in many news outlets, including the Globe.

Someone claimed the Trump flag was a Confederate flag. The Babson students were accused of yelling a slur commonly used to demean lesbians, of screaming racial epithets, of purposely driving to the house that is a gathering spot for Wellesley students of color to intimidate those there. A Facebook posting that went viral accused one of the Babson students of spitting on a black student. The Babson students got death threats.

But Babson’s investigation was ultimately unable to substantiate many of these allegations, including allegations that the students used epithets and spat on or in the direction of Wellesley students. (The latter act, spitting toward students, had allegedly occurred while police and campus security were present, but officers didn’t witness the conduct.)  That left the students’ political speech—waving a flag and shouting pro-Trump slogans—as the solitary basis for the charges against them.

While FIRE is a non-partisan organization, political advocacy of all stripes lies at the core of freedom of expression. As FIRE pointed out in its letter sent to Babson in advance of Friday’s hearing, the students’ political speech could not serve as a basis for charges against them without contradicting Babson College’s expressed commitment to respecting its students’ freedom of expression. Political speech, as we noted, will often offend or be seen as obnoxious, but that cannot serve as a basis to punish or restrict it:

The principle of freedom of speech does not exist to protect only noncontroversial expression; rather, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial, offensive, or alarming. Politeness may dictate that one should be magnanimous in victory, but freedom of expression knows no such limitation. Otherwise, authorities or college administrators would be free to limit speech at their own discretion, whenever they subjectively deem it too impolite, obnoxious, or inflammatory.

FIRE co-founder and civil rights attorney Harvey Silverglate went further in an op-ed to the Boston Herald last week, condemning Babson’s premature banishment of the students from campus during the pending investigation:

The unseemly faculty and administration rage was tempered only when Babson and Wellesley campus police reported they could find no evidence to support any of the allegations of racism. Babson’s campus ban on the two students was immediately lifted. Yelling “Trump 2016” and “Make America Great Again” out of the windows of a vehicle is not a crime in the USA, nor a recognized offense — at least not yet — on a liberal arts campus.

While the charges should have been dismissed before the hearing for lack of evidence, we’re pleased that Babson officials have ultimately concluded that the charges against their students lacked merit.

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