Racial Humor Among Friends Deemed ‘Harassment’ at Lewis & Clark College
PORTLAND, Oregon, May 8, 2014—Lewis & Clark College has declared two students, one African-American and one white, guilty of creating a “hostile and discriminatory environment” after racially themed jokes spoken between the friends at a private party were overheard and reported to campus authorities. The students contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help. In the face of media scrutiny and growing faculty concern, the college has said only that it “may” respond to FIRE’s criticisms.
“To punish two friends for joking with one another simply because someone overheard their language and was offended is utterly wrongheaded,” said Robert Shibley, FIRE’s Senior Vice President. “If it really wants to fight racism on campus, Lewis & Clark should stop wasting its time on jokes among friends who happen to have different skin colors.”
On November 23, 2013, roughly 20 students, many of them members of Lewis & Clark’s football team, attended a private party at a campus residence hall. During a game of “beer pong,” one African-American student jokingly named his team “Team Nigga” and would exclaim the team’s name when scoring a point. The student also exchanged an “inside joke” greeting with a white friend, who welcomed him by saying, “How about a ‘white power’?”, to which the African-American student replied in jest, “white power!”
A student not present at the party overheard the language and reported it to Lewis & Clark’s Campus Living office, which turned the matter over to the college’s Campus Safety division. Campus Safety investigated the alleged “racial and biased comments” made at the party, interviewing the two students and questioning them about the language used both at the party and within Lewis & Clark’s football program. After the investigation’s conclusion, Lewis & Clark charged both students with “Physical or Mental Harm,” “Discrimination or Harassment,” and “Disorderly Conduct.” Although the students’ conduct charges and ensuing disciplinary hearings were spurred by the complaint about the November 23 party, Lewis & Clark made clear that it intended to investigate “[o]ther acts of potential hate speech and bias that have occurred recently on campus” as well.
Lewis & Clark found both students guilty on all charges and rejected each of their appeals. In one student’s disciplinary letter, Lewis & Clark wrote that the student’s language “contributed to the creation of a hostile and discriminatory environment.” In rejecting the same student’s appeal, Lewis & Clark claimed his speech “caused reasonable apprehension of harm to the community.” Lewis & Clark placed both students on probation and required each to complete “Community Restitution” in the form of “Bias Reduction and Bystander Intervention Training,” among other sanctions. Both students contacted FIRE.
FIRE wrote to Lewis & Clark President Barry Glassner on April 18, demanding that the charges and sanctions against the students on the basis of their expression be removed. Though Lewis & Clark is a private college not bound by the First Amendment, it does make promises of free speech to its students. Its policy on Freedom of Expression & Inquiry states, for example, that students are “free to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them and to express opinions publicly and privately.” Lewis & Clark General Counsel David Ellis responded to FIRE on May 1, writing: “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’s treatment of the two students has resulted in widespread media coverage and criticism, including from its own faculty. This week, 40 Lewis & Clark faculty members sent an open letter to the college, criticizing the college’s “questionable treatment of free speech and of our students’ right to due process” and lamenting that faculty efforts to get more information have been “met with silence” from the university.
“From the start, this case has been marked by disregard for free speech and failures of basic common sense,” said Peter Bonilla, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “The Lewis & Clark community deserves a whole lot more from the administration than a statement that it ‘may’ address the serious failures exhibited in this case.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.