University of South Carolina Wrongly Suspends Student for Racism

The University of South Carolina has suspended a student, apparently for writing the N-word on a white board in a study room on campus, revealed in a photo that was posted online:

South Carolina racism

This controversy has attracted attention not merely on campus and in the community, but also nationwide and even on the NBC Nightly News.

President Harris Pastides issued a statement declaring, “Respect for all is at the heart of the Carolinian Creed, the code by which we agree to abide. Racist and uncivil rhetoric have no place at the University of South Carolina. We have taken appropriate actions to suspend a student and begin code of conduct investigations. The Board of Trustees has endorsed this prompt course of action.”

The Carolinian Creed does indeed require “respect” and “discourage bigotry.” But as the university explains about the Creed, “Instead of limiting student’s rights through the creation of more rules, it set an example for all to follow.” The Creed, created in 1990, was a misguided attempt to explain campus ideals. It was not “a code by which we agree to abide,” as President Pastides thinks. If it were, it would be one of the worst speech codes in the country, since any code that required everyone to “demonstrate concern for others” and “their feelings” is extraordinarily repressive and plainly unconstitutional.

If you look at the actual conduct code of the University of South Carolina, nothing this student did violates it. The code of conduct is very badly written, and broadly restricts constitutionally protected speech with regulations against “Conduct that disturbs the peace or disrupts the rights or privileges of others.” It also bans “Interfering with or disrupting the normal activity and operations of the university or its educational mission, programs, or events.” In fact, South Carolina’s speech code is so broad it actually allows for expelling a student who makes an “unusual noise” if that’s deemed disruptive.

But even by these vague standards, what happened does not qualify as a violation of the code of conduct. A photo on social media doesn’t “disrupt” anything. It cannot disturb the peace because the only thing it does is exist in cyberspace. Nor does a heckler’s veto legally exist: if a controversial idea causes a disruptive response, you can only punish the person who disrupts, not the person with provocative ideas.

These repressive speech codes like the University of South Carolina’s utilize words that were designed long ago, with the aim of suppressing peaceful protests on campuses by calling them “disruptive.” But social media doesn’t fit into these outmoded approaches.

The University of South Carolina’s action go even further, because they have suspended the student without a hearing, presumably under the “emergency action” part of the Code of Conduct. Here’s what that says: “The University may impose emergency action upon a student or student organization when there is reason to believe, based upon available evidence, that the student/student organization poses an immediate threat to the safety, health or welfare of persons, property or to the orderly operation of the University.”

Even according to this extremely vague code, there is no “immediate threat” posed to anyone by this photo of offensive words. No one seriously believes that the student who is pictured poses an “immediate threat” to anyone. Indeed, the only immediate threat involved in this case is to the student in the picture, who has reportedly been identified and received death threats.

Of course, the fact that the University of South Carolina is violating its own rules in this case does not answer the deeper philosophical question: should students who use bigoted language be punished by universities?

I say no. First of all, sometimes people use racist language for non-racist or even anti-racist reasons. In this case, the student is writing a list of “reasons why USC WiFi blows” but the answers have nothing to do with WiFi. Is this person just a racist idiot? Or are they mocking racist idiots on campus by providing a list of dumb things they’ve heard ignorant people say?

But even if we proved without a doubt that this student is racist (as in the University of Oklahoma case), I would oppose formal punishment by the university. There is no principled way to toss out a few openly racist people without endangering many more non-racists. For example, if universities ban the use of the N-word, a whole lot of African-Americans will end up being punished, not white people. And if a university declares that only non-black people who use the word will be punished, a racial discrimination lawsuit is inevitable. And a large number of rap songs by black artists will be effectively banned on campus.

Then there’s the slippery slope: you can’t just ban one racist word. You have to ban the expression of any bigoted ideas. You have to ban hateful expressions against blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, gays, straights, men, women, Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, and everyone else. Everyone has had the experience of being falsely accused of some kind of bigotry (or agreeing with someone else who has). Should you be prosecuted under a campus code of conduct for it?

And then there’s the problem of effectiveness. Banning racist language doesn’t end racism. It simply spurs the development of coded language. The way we fight against racism is by denouncing it, not by punishing it. The University of South Carolina had the opportunity to show its values by condemning racism. Instead, the president and the Board of Trustees decided to violate the First Amendment and their campus codes in a misguided attempt at spin control. Instead of working to defeat racism by educating students, they chose the phony symbolism of illegally punishing a student for her unpopular speech, and hoping that the media attention will disappear quickly

The University of South Carolina’s slogan is, “No Limits.” That obviously doesn’t apply to free speech at the University of South Carolina, but it should.

7 thoughts on “University of South Carolina Wrongly Suspends Student for Racism

  1. Is the problem that expulsion was too harsh a penalty, or is this blog post saying that no penalty was warranted? I would agree with the former, but not necessarily the latter. If no penalty (which could be as simple as counseling) is given, then there is a slippery slope problem going the other way. Will there be no penalties for swastikas drawn on whiteboards? How about someone writing “N— suck? How about F-bombs on whiteboards? Can anything be written and left on a whiteboard, no matter how offensive or obscene? How about pornographic drawings on whiteboards?

    Obviously, there is a serious line-drawing problem here, and this is why the slopes seem so slippery. But just because it is difficult to draw some sort of lines doesn’t mean that it should not be attempted.

    The thing with whiteboards is that whatever is written on them can be viewed by many people. It is very close to graffiti. And the student does not own the whiteboard. I’m not sure how the First Amendment gives a student the right to write whatever she wants on a whiteboard. Graffiti artists sometimes make this sort of bogus claim to defend their vandalism.

    I certainly don’t have the right to write or draw whatever I want when I’m working at the whiteboard while teaching a class. It is not my property. Universities can certainly set limits on whiteboard use.

    Racist graffiti is not something that can just be ignored by a university community. Denouncing it is certainly appropriate, but rules about the use of whiteboards, computers, dorm rooms, etc. are certainly within the legal right of universities and should not be dismissed so readily.

    • I argue that no penalty is warranted because this student did not violate any aspect of the Code of Conduct. You ask, “Can anything be written and left on a whiteboard, no matter how offensive or obscene?” The answer is, yes. Campus codes do not (and should not) punish offensive or obscene speech.

      Graffiti is illegal damage to property by drawing something without permission on it. A whiteboard is an invitation to write upon it. There is no physical damage because the words can always be erased. (And, in this case, it was the photo of the writing that caused the controversy; I’m almost certain that the words had been erased by the student before leaving the room.) So this is not graffiti.

      The fact that a whiteboard is the property of the university is not meaningful. A teacher is prohibited from harassing or threatening students in the classroom; whether you do it verbally or on a whiteboard is irrelevant. Likewise, you have academic freedom in your classroom, whether you use it verbally or on a whiteboard. The fact that a university owns the whiteboard but does not own your voicebox is unimportant to the question of academic freedom.

      • I completely disagree that whiteboards in classrooms are an invitation for students to write on them. They are there for instructional purposes just like the computers in many classrooms. Just because instructional equipment is in a classroom does not mean that students are free to use it. Students are not allowed to use the computers in the classrooms at my college without specific permission. My college also has rules about who can post and what can be posted on the bulletin boards. Free speech rights do not give one the right to use the property of others.

        As for graffiti, I’m not sure that it needs to be in permanent ink. If someone wrote on my garage door with ink that was easy to wash off, I would still be pissed about it. They would not have the right to do that in the first place. It could easily be graffiti. Graffiti does not need to cause damage to be illegal.

        If I came into a classroom to teach and the board was filled with vulgarities and obscenities I would be pissed off. First, it would be offensive to probably myself and my students who would be waiting before class. Second, someone, me, would have to erase it. Why should I have to do that work? Clearly, students don’t have some special right to use the whiteboards.

        I’m not arguing that the actual code of conduct at this university covered this, but your conclusion that no code of conduct should cover the use of instructional equipment, bulletin boards, etc. seems unwarranted. I see no evidence that First Amendment rights give one the right to use a piece of instructional equipment however and whenever one wants.

        Taken to its logical extreme, your position would allow a student to enter every classroom on a campus and write “All [fill in ethnic slur, gender slur, etc.] should die!” on all the whiteboards. My position is that this would be a misuse of instructional equipment. The ownership of the means of expression do make a difference. I simply don’t see how being a student at a college would give a student the right to do this.

      • The facts in this case don’t match your hypotheticals. I believe this was in a study room, not a classroom, and the words were erased. As for declaring that someone “should die,” that could be a threat, whether it was written or verbal. Sometimes colleges need to regulate use of computers for security/damages reasons, or regulate bulletin boards because of limited space, but not based on viewpoint. However, that doesn’t seem to apply to whiteboards, and I think it would be ridiculous if a college banned writing on whiteboards in empty classrooms simply out of fear that someone might leave an offensive message.

  2. Pingback: 'Welcome to college - now be quiet!' Many campuses maintain militant speech codes - The College Fix

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