Public college presidents are sometimes faced with pressure to expel or otherwise punish students expressing controversial or offensive opinions, even if the speech is unquestionably protected by the First Amendment. The University of Oklahoma’s (OU’s) President David Boren and the University of Maryland’s (UMD’s) President Wallace Loh both faced this pressure recently.
On March 10, Boren, ignoring due process and the First Amendment rights he is bound to uphold, chose to expel two students who were among those filmed singing a racist fraternity chant. Boren’s eagerness to oppose racism is understandable, but his willingness to disregard students’ rights in the process is not.
Loh recently faced a similar situation when a racist and sexist email sent from a student and Kappa Sigma fraternity member at UMD was uncovered. Yesterday, Loh emailed his campus regarding the outcome of UMD’s investigation into the email. Loh, succeeding where Boren failed, spoke out against the email and attested to the harm it caused to the campus community, but recognized that the speech was protected by the First Amendment and thus did not seek to punish the student responsible for it. He wrote:
[The university’s investigators] concluded that this private email, while hateful and reprehensible, did not violate University policies and is protected by the First Amendment. Following consultation with the University’s General Counsel, I accepted the conclusions of this independent investigation that was carried out in accordance with due process.
However, this determination does not mitigate the fact that the email is profoundly hurtful to the entire University community. It caused anger and anguish, pain and fear, among many people. It subverts our core values of inclusivity, human dignity, safety, and mutual respect. When any one of us is harmed by the hateful speech of another, all of us are harmed.
As our University community seeks to heal, let us remember what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” A university is a place to pursue education, truth, and reconciliation.
Loh recognized that the student’s speech was constitutionally protected and could not be penalized at a public university. He also reaffirmed UMD’s role as a place where offensive speech is countered with more speech, not punished.
According to Loh, the student responsible for the offensive email volunteered to perform community service and undertake training in diversity and cultural competence. Loh additionally states that, “by mutual consent between the student, his family, and the University,” the student chose to remain off campus for the remainder of the semester. Assuming the student was really given the choice by UMD to remove himself from campus, FIRE commends Loh for choosing to uphold important First Amendment values instead of choosing the easy—but wrong—way out.
FIRE is reassured by President Loh’s willingness to acknowledge that unpopular and offensive speech is still protected by the First Amendment, even if some members of UMD’s community disagree with his assessment. As unfortunately evidenced by President Boren’s response, this is not always the stance taken by university leaders.