After reviewing private chat messages posted anonymously to Instagram, Towson University rightly refused calls to punish the campus chapter of Turning Point USA for messages containing slurs. While many may have been offended by the messages, FIRE is pleased to see the university standing by its First Amendment obligations to protect a wide range of speech.
On the night of Oct. 4, an anonymous source posted screenshots of TPUSA group chat messages to Instagram and they soon circulated throughout campus. The next day, a TPUSA spokesperson authenticated the messages.
Towson students accused the group members of making offensive comments about race, sexual orientation, disabilities, political ideologies, gender identity, and other controversial topics. Students immediately called for Towson to punish their classmates for their expression.
The Towerlight campus newspaper, reported that a TPUSA member referred to “LGBTQ Pride Month as ‘f—’ month” and “the monkeypox outbreak [as] the ‘f— virus.’” Other messages show students saying “retarded,” admitting to using the “n-word,” and insulting someone’s gender identity. TPUSA members also ridiculed liberals and socialists by saying “They look unwell, they’re rude and nasty, and their faces could’ve been one of those faces in those Antifa mugshots.” Group members also took to criticizing the city of Baltimore: “This is why I won’t live in Baltimore . . . When I was driving through there, it didn’t even look like America. It looked like the middle of fucking Uganda. Even war-torn Ukraine looks nicer than west Baltimore.”
Several students submitted bias incident reports concerning the messages and demanded that the university discipline the students. One student said, “I hope these tpusa kids know the entire university is against them.”
Announcing investigations into protected speech can chill or silence a person from speaking in the future.
The following day, Towson’s Vice President for Inclusion and Institutional Equity, Patricia Bradley, said in a statement: “The Office of Inclusion and Institutional Equity is reviewing  reports to determine if [the messages] are in violation of policy. We encourage our campus community to continue to report such incidents.”
A correction published later showed Bradley’s original statement had also included the line, “we will continue to let our community know that even protected speech can be harmful.” (Shout out to whoever at Towson flagged this for a correction -– that’s some FIRE-worthy First Amendment advocacy right there!)
Ultimately, the Office of Inclusion and Institutional Equity understands that as a public university, Towson must consider freedom of speech when assessing reports of bias incidents. The university’s policy for the Reporting of Hate Crimes and Bias Incidents states: “While the expression of an idea or point of view may be hateful, offensive, or inflammatory, it may not be an actionable bias-related incident.” Bradley reaffirmed this concept when addressing concerned students:
Bigoted, homophobic, racist assholes exist on our campus . . . And guess what, those bigoted, racist, homophobic assholes have constitutional protections. They have constitutional protections. Do we like it that they’re here? Do we like that they’ve said the most vile and disgusting things, ever? No, we don’t. Would we like to say, ‘get off our campus?’ ‘Not at TU?’ Absolutely. But there are some restrictions.
Surely, an administrator calling students “bigoted, racist, homophobic assholes” is, arguably, not in the spirit of an optimal free expression culture. That characterization alone, from someone with power over a student’s degree, could chill them from speaking in the future.
Ultimately, however, it appears cooler heads prevailed and Towson stood by its First Amendment obligations in refusing to punish TPUSA or its members. Normally FIRE would argue that an investigation of constitutionally protected speech can itself violate the First Amendment — even if that investigation concludes in favor of the speaker. Announcing investigations into protected speech can chill or silence a person from speaking in the future. However, Towson appears to have merely conducted a preliminary internal review of the messages, and answered a reporter’s question about whether they had done so. Nothing suggests the university alerted the students they were under investigation, or otherwise suggested TPUSA members should stop expressing themselves.
Other universities should follow Towson’s lead when asked to censor controversial speech.
That is exactly what FIRE asks universities to do with allegations involving speech — review first, and investigate only where non-protected speech is at issue. And equally important, this review happened timely. The TPUSA members weren’t left waiting and wondering if they were allowed to voice their opinions, which is often the consequence of university “investigations.”
Offended students surely won’t be too thrilled with this outcome, but they have one of the best remedies out there — using their own voices. Just like the TPUSA group members, the concerned students have the right to criticize the messages all they want. Some say “fight fire with fire,” but we like to say “fight words with words.”
Other universities should follow Towson’s lead when asked to censor controversial speech. Instead, they should remind students that offensive speech may still be protected, conduct prompt reviews in accordance with free speech principles, and decline to punish protected speech.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).