Racism and free speech

So, I ended up sitting in on a talk by the NCSU Chancellor the Alumni Association and a lot of what he had to say was explaining recent events on campus.  I have to confess to being often shamefully unaware of what’s going on on the broader campus and this was one of those time.  Apparently, the Chancellor has come under much criticism for not punishing students for engaging in a racist conversation in an on-line chat.  The story from the student newspaper captures it pretty well:

Two students issued an apology to the entire NC State student body Wednesday after screenshots of a GroupMe chat laced with racial epithets were posted to the Wolfpack Students Facebook group Tuesday night.

The screenshots, which feature an extensive conversation between two NC State freshmen, Connor Jackson and Brennen Smith, showed texts that mock the Black Lives Matter protests that have been taking place in Charlotte and around campus. The conversation also featured messages like “Bruh we in the private chat you can call a n—– a n—–,” and the N-word was used repeatedly. 

In their apology, which was emailed to all NC State students, Jackson, who is studying psychology, and Smith, who is studying agricultural sciences, said that they know what they said “is very offensive and hurtful to the African-American community here on campus.” 

The two mentioned that they hope their close friends and the entirety of the NC State community will forgive them and their actions. 

“We’re sorry for our words, and we’re sorry for how they hurt many people, some of whom are very close to us,” they wrote. “The pain we’ve caused will take a long time to heal; it is just our hope that it will be able to at some point.”

The initial post in Wolfpack Students drew a lot of reactions from group members, garnered the attention of members within Student Government and prompted a video message from Chancellor Randy Woodson. 

“Along with most of you, I share great disappointment and frustration that some in our community not only have bigoted views, but choose to express those views that stand in direct opposition to the diverse and inclusive campus culture that we’re striving to achieve,” Woodson said in the video. “This university will not be defined by a few on our campus who profess racism or hatred.”

Mike Mullen, vice chancellor and dean of the Division of Academic and Student Affairs, said that while the messages the students sent to each other “may be hurtful or hateful, they are not hate speech in the sense that anyone is directly threatened,” and therefore are protected under the First Amendment and not punishable under the university’s code of student conduct. 

Achaia Dent, the organizer behind the die-in protest that was staged at Talley Student Union on Sept. 23 and a freshman studying animal science, said that she thinks Jackson and Smith’s apology was unintentional and that the university should be doing more to combat racism on campus. 

“I think that we have a lot of work to do as a university and as a community,” Dent said. “I don’t think there was meaning behind [their apology]. I think that they’re sorry they got caught, I don’t think they’re sorry for what they did.” 

The texts were screenshotted by Marcus Lowry, a sophomore studying mechanical engineering and Jackson and Smith’s suitemate, after he was added to the group by a friend. According to the Nubian Message, within an hour of Lowry discovering the messages, the resident advisor and resident director in Sullivan Hall had been alerted and the messages were posted on social media.

“I think the situation has been handled as well as to be expected, but that’s honestly not saying much,” Lowry said in an email. “The chancellor released a video addressing the subject, but I think it will end up doing more harm than good. I believe that him protecting racism with the First Amendment in the video just opens the door for more racists to show their true colors.”  [emphasis mine]

And the follow-up story about the racial climate campus forum:

Casting the forum as a legal conversation was a “subterfuge for what’s actually happening here,” according to Ashlyn Sanders, an alumnus of Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill and the sister of Robyn Sanders, a graduate student studying public administration.

“Their position coming in was from a legal perspective but that’s not what are students needed to hear, obviously by the tone of the room,” said Paul Nolan, student body president and a senior studying materials science and engineering. “I think it just exemplifies the problem, our administration isn’t talking to students about how they feel and what they need.”

Well, damn, who does our Chancellor think he is in needing to follow the law?!  Much as people may want the university to make them feel better by punishing people for racist comments in an on-line chat, that’s not how it works in a free society of a public university.  The Chancellor cannot give the students what they want if what they want disregards the US Constitution and NCSU regulations.  The Chancellor could not be more clear that racism is socially unacceptable.  But universities and governments cannot punish people for what’s socially unacceptable, just illegal or in violation of a code of conduct.

NC State, like any institution in society, is far from perfect on matters of race.  But we do a damn good job and the values of anti-racism and anti-sexism are pervasive throughout the faculty and administration.  In a university with over 30,000 students and thousands of employees, the “racial climate” cannot be defined by a couple of first-year morons who use the N-word in an on-line chat.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

15 Responses to Racism and free speech

  1. “The Chancellor cannot give the students what they want if what they want disregards the US Constitution and NCSU regulations.”

    So very true and succinctly put. I guarantee I’ll be using this at some point this fall!

  2. Jon K says:

    I don’t get it. How does a private chat get screenshot and put out to the whole university? How was it anyone’s buisness what two people said in a private chat? Isn’t it similar to secretly recording a private conversation and then disseminating it without permission? Last I checked in America we are allowed to use whatever language we wish. It doesn’t matter if that language may hurt somebody’s feelings. When we get to that point we have thought police, and that is a very dangerous place to be.

    • Jon K says:

      Ok read the story their suite mate decided to sell them out. What an asshole. Roommates shouldn’t do that to each other. He could have spoken to the privately if he was bothered. Instead he turned this into a spectacle,so they could be publicly shamed.

      Because of course the mob is the best way to deal with things like words you don’t think should be used. What a strange world we are living in.

      • Jon K says:


        So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed should be required reading for all freshman. Then students might think before they do things like this.

      • Steve Greene says:

        Actually, I love the idea of this book for NCSU Common Reading.

      • Jon K says:

        Last post from me on this, but this type of thing makes my blood boil. The description from So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed sums it up well:

        The shamed are people like us – people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job.

        A great renaissance of public shaming is sweeping our land. Justice has been democratized. The silent majority are getting a voice. But what are we doing with our voice? We are mercilessly finding people’s faults. We are defining the boundaries of normality by ruining the lives of those outside it. We are using shame as a form of social control.

      • Jon K says:

        NC State’s newly formed Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) to review this week’s social media incident.

        Give me a break. Some kids said some impolite things in a forum that they thought was private. Their asshole suite mate decided to stab them in the back and publish it where it would cause a scene.

        It is not a crime to have politically incorrect views. It is not a crime to be a racist. It is not a crime to say things in private that you would not say in public. There is quite simply no action the University could or should take in this incident. If anyone should get in trouble it is the asshole who posted the screenshot.

        What exactly is this task force going to be empowered to do? Is ncsu really going to employ thought police on its campus?

        People need to grow up and quit being so damn sensitive.

      • Steve Greene says:

        I do worry about the BIRT being unleashed on me some day because a student mistakes mocking racism for being racist.

      • Jon K says:

        I just find the whole concept of creating thought police because somebody’s impolite private remarks were made public beyond ludicrous. To me it comes down to an individual either has a right to have free thoughts and free speech or they do not. I would think that as a public university, ncsu would be constrained by the 1st amendment on this issue. As an academic institution, I would hope that a commitment to the free and open exchange of thought would Trump hysterical knee-jerk demands for action. (sadly my phone now autocapitalizes Trump and I can’t figure out how to easily fix it)

      • Steve Greene says:

        To be fair, “impolite remarks” is quite a euphemism. But, yes, in general even racists get free speech.

      • Jon K says:

        If this is what the BIRT will be at NCSU I am very concerned for free speech on campus.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Semi-private chat, apparently. I’m an old guy– don’t look to me to explain how the chat works ;-).

      • R. Jenrette says:

        “We are using shame as a form of social control.”
        So has it always been. What’s different is how organized and how quickly shame can be turned into a weapon from the Crowd with modern technology.
        The Crowd becomes the Mob.

  3. itchy says:

    “I believe that him protecting racism with the First Amendment in the video just opens the door for more racists to show their true colors.”

    Yes. This is exactly what the First Amendment is designed to do: allow people to show their true colors.

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