• Abigail Hall

OU one of many universities without clear penalties for hate speech, actions

Originally published at OU Daily Feb. 6, 2019

Despite the prevalence of racist incidents on college campuses across the nation, language in many university codes of conduct still does not wholly define or penalize hate speech and actions.

Student codes of conduct like OU’s Students Rights and Responsibility Code are created to maintain students’ rights and responsibilities in conjunction with the university’s mission statement as well as the state and federal constitutions. Despite the policies put in place on OU’s campus, when the Jan. 18 racist video of two former OU students was released, OU President James Gallogly said there was not a legal precedent to remove them from campus.

OU’s code of conduct does not currently prohibit hate speech and actions by students if the incident is off campus or not deemed physically threatening.

In the aftermath of OU’s lack of disciplinary actions, the Black Student Association gave a list of demands to the administration, including the addition of a zero tolerance policy of hate speech to the student code of conduct.

Robert Bruce Slater, the managing editor of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, said in an email to The Daily that diversity training programs on college campuses may not be enough to root out racist beliefs in students, but proper policy could lessen it.

A zero tolerance policy with strict enforcement made clear to students upon their arrival on campus could create an increase in sensitivity to others, and avoid hurtful comments made on campus and on social media, he said.

Additionally, university campuses are mandated to implement the right of freedom of expression and ideas, according the Higher Education Opportunity Act. Conjunctively, the policy prohibits discrimination and harassment based on race in accordance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Several universities across the nation have struggled with policies that do not address racist hate speech or allow for an institutional response following racist incidents on campuses.

On Jan. 3, a racist video posted to Twitter depicted University of Tennessee student Savannah Micillo, a member of the Alpha Chi Omega sorority chapter, using a racial slur.

A friend of mine just sent me this... This is Savannah Micillo of Alpha Chi Omega at The University of Tennessee Knoxville. 🤦‍♀️ Horrible representation for any organization, Greek letter or not. pic.twitter.com/VwB3oKKkpc— celestial butterfly (@iam_peso) January 3, 2019

While Micillo was suspended from the sorority chapter, the university declined to comment on disciplinary actions made in response. The university posted a statement in accordance with a the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, which protects the privacy of students’ education records.

The University of Tennessee’s code of conduct defines disorderly conduct as “using discriminatory language” or actions while on university property or during university activities. It states that this conduct would result in “gross misconduct,” which is not defined, and further disciplinary action is not mentioned.

The policy discusses issues of harassment and discrimination, but similar to OU’s code, does not specifically address hate speech by a student. It defines harassment as harm that is “subjectively offensive to the complainant and objectively offensive to a reasonable person.”

Goucher College in Maryland is another campus that has struggled to respond to incidents of racist hate speech and violence despite an expanded definition of harassment, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

Goucher College’s policy defines harassment, which includes discrimination on the basis of race, as “behavior that either is intended to, or actually does, inflict harm or emotional distress or provoke a violent reaction.” OU and the University of Tennessee’s policies only cover actions that physically cause harm.

Goucher’s policy is both in place on campus and off campus at the discretion of the college’s vice president or dean, according to the policy.

Despite this policy, Goucher was the location of five racist vandalism incidents in common spaces with the use of Nazi propaganda targeted at specific black students in 2018. The first four incidents were labeled “inconclusive” due to the inability to identify those at fault.

After the fifth incident, a student was arrested on two counts of malicious destruction of property, but not of hate crime.

The continued inability to prevent racially violent incidents at Goucher led to a protest of more than 100 students. Despite the administration’s public statements that it did not condone the incidents, the incidents kept occurring.

Even with the expanded policy at Goucher, because of the lack of a zero tolerance policy, the incidents went on unresolved until the arrest in November — and even then, the justice system definition of a “hate crime” did not encompass the actions of the individual, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Racist incidents are reported on college campuses nationwide at a pervasive rate, Slater said in an email to The Daily.

Two incidents at OU have been reported to the department in the last 10 years, the spokesperson said. The first incident is the SAE chapter closure in 2015. The second incident is the Jan. 18 racist video.

Karlos Hill, OU African and African American Studies department chair and associate professor, said blackface minstrelsy is part of a long history of racial discrimination for the sake of white entertainment and profit. Hill said it would be surprising if racist incidents did not occur on campuses like OU’s because of America’s history of denigrating black people through blackface, lynching and racial epithets.

“We haven’t really had a reckoning with race and racism in this country in a way that would push us in a new direction,” Hill said.

Hill said that while racist incidents don’t surprise him, they are still jarring and revolting.

“I can’t afford to be indifferent to those things. Those things do damage, those things harm on an individual level and on a collective basis,” Hill said. “Those students end up being in classes like mine; those students, I walk by on an everyday basis. I share physical space with those students. I can’t take it lightly.”

Hill said if the current code of conduct is updated to a zero tolerance policy, a change he has openly advocated for this semester, it could be a turning point for black students and faculty and their experience with the university.

“If we don’t take these recent incidents and we don’t take substantive change in relationship … and specifically create a transparent policy around how the administration is going to deal with these incidents … it’ll be seen as a missed opportunity,” Hill said.

Moving forward, Hill said he has made sure not to second-guess what black students are saying about how they feel.

“If they say they feel unwelcome, then that’s what it is – they feel unwelcome – and we need to, as a university, figure out how to change that perception with substantive policy changes,” Hill said.

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