Campuses become epicenters in hate speech debate

Protecting both rights and safety vex students and officials

University of Iowa students, from left, Jimmy Smith, Essence Baymon, Madison Hoffman, Ellen Kuehnle and Maria Frazer mee
University of Iowa students, from left, Jimmy Smith, Essence Baymon, Madison Hoffman, Ellen Kuehnle and Maria Frazer meet last Monday at UI Women's Resource and Action Center in the Bowman House in Iowa City as part of their research into and discussion of the issue of restoring voting rights to felons after release from prison. The center is one on campus that is concerned about a rise in hate-fueled speech and vandalism. “We do hear that kind of talk — about things being placed on doors and in dorms,” said Linda Kroon, director of the center. “There are concerns about comments that people hear or make and messages they see on social media, raising the level of discomfort and tension.” (Ben Roberts/Freelance)

IOWA CITY — A troublesome discovery in October 2016 led University of Iowa administrators to reach out to the campus cultural houses.

“Yesterday, (flyers) with a hateful message were discovered on and around the University of Iowa’s Latino Native American Cultural Center, LGBTQ Resource Center, and Afro-American Cultural Center.”

Sixteen days later, they shared another message, this time with the entire campus.

“Early this morning, the University of Iowa Housing & Dining staff was notified of a racist remark written on a student’s door at Burge Residence Hall,” according to the emailed message, signed by UI President Bruce Harreld and a host of administrators, faculty and student leaders. “Hate speech does not reflect the values of our institution and will not be tolerated.”

But it has continued. And with it so has the debate over how to advance free speech and academic freedom on campus while simultaneously making students — many from out of state and from other nations — feel safe and welcome.

The UI has received 20 reports of flyers or vandalism promoting the alt-right, white supremacy, racist ideas or other hate speech since August 2016 — about the time such incidents began to surge on campuses across the nation. Five of the reports at the UI have come this academic year.

The state’s two other public universities, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa, report similar spikes over the period. UNI took 27 reports of bias-related incidents in the 2016-17 academic year and 12 so far this term, up from 10 in the 2016-15 school year. At least four white nationalist posters were found on the ISU campus in January alone, officials said.


Campus administrators say the reports likely represent only a portion of actual incidents. And Iowa is not alone in the rise of hate-fueled incidents on campus, as a recent report from the Chronicle of Higher Education substantiates anecdotal evidence of a surge nationally.

New data from the U.S. Department of Education shows campus hate crimes — incidents rising to the level of an actual crime — swelled 25 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to the Chronicle. Tallied by disclosures under the Clery Act, which requires colleges to report campus crime, institutions documented a total 1,250 hate crimes. In the four years before, according to the Chronicle, colleges reported an average of 970 hate crimes annually, with little variation.

The increase has sparked heated debate over campus efforts to enable the free exchange of ideas while also creating an inclusive climate for students. The debate stretches far beyond the campus confines and involves national advocacy groups and lawmakers.

At the Iowa Legislature, for example, lawmakers are considering a sweeping measure — Senate Study Bill 3120 — that would tell regent universities how to treat belief-based student groups and broaden the definition of a public forum, raising concern on campus that the bill would put out the welcome mat for extremists.

Bias response teams

The debate has caused universities, including in Iowa, to shift position, waffle on issues and change course.

Consider a bias action response team the UI had planned to debut in fall 2016. That team, which was suggested by students, aimed to give victims more tools to respond to complaints of hate and discrimination. But before it could get off the ground, it was scrapped. Then-UI Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President Georgina Dodge said the university was ditching plans for the team following complaints about similar campus initiatives across the country.

Criticism swirled around the potential for negative effects on academic freedom and free speech, and UI officials deemed a “sounding board” would be better.

So the university instead launched an informal “campus inclusion team” last year. The group can’t investigate complaints or dole out discipline, but can listen to student concerns and help identify solutions.

But the UI’s about-face concerned some.


For example, when the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — which says its mission is to defend rights at colleges and universities — touted its role in the decision to nix the bias team, UI student Matthew Bruce took notice.

“We were never interested in policing speech,” said Bruce, who serves as a student leader in multiple capacities, including as an office coordinator at the UI Afro-American Cultural Center. “The bias action response team was supposed to be an investigative mechanism for incidences of actual hate and psychological or physical violence.”

Bruce blames, at least in part, the rise in incidents of campus racism and bias on the UI’s decision to backtrack.

“These organizations have had free reign since August of 2016 to flyer — they’ve put up flyers at the Afro house and the other cultural centers,” he said.

Administrators said FIRE, based in Philadelphia, had no influence on their decision to scrap the response team.

“There was resistance from faculty and staff about the privacy of faculty and staff and academic freedom of faculty being stifled,” said Tabitha Wiggins, assistant director of multicultural programs with the UI Center for Student Involvement and Leadership. “ ... We just want to do what’s best for students, and right now this is the course of action that seems best for students.”

At ISU, administrators decided to proceed with a “campus climate response team” about a year ago — one that meets regularly.

“We now have a way to funnel the reporting and tracking,” said ISU Senior Vice President for Student Affairs Martino Harmon.


At UNI, which since 2008 has had a team focused on bias-related incidents, administrators two years ago decided to reassess their program in light of the national controversy around such teams. UNI Dean of Students Leslie Williams said they decided to stick with a bias response team — but they changed its name last year and altered its mission.

The group now is called a “bias reporting team” and it focuses on educating students about how to report incidents.

“We have changed our purpose to be more about getting people to know the processes, getting people to report, getting to know what’s happening on campus,” Williams said. “We didn’t feel as a committee that we could really respond to incidents.”


Getting students involved in dealing with incidents of hate speech or bias on campus is imperative, students said.

Which is why UI student Bruce said he’s concerned with the disappearance of a black student advisory committee created at the UI after a visiting professor there in 2014 erected a KKK-likened statue in the center of campus.

That group, intended to advise the UI president on policies and practices affecting black students, hasn’t met this academic year.

“There’s no one really holding the president’s office accountable as a result,” he said. “There’s no ability to.”

University officials in an email said the group has struggled both with maintaining leadership and with its mission.


The UI’s Center for Student Involvement and Leadership is rethinking the group’s charge and “how to be effective moving forward,” according to UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck.

The UI has policies about reporting incidents of hate-inspired vandalism or flyers, including securing the area, notifying a supervisor and contacting police. But unlike for incidents of sexual assault, the university does not automatically send a campuswide communication every time. But some students think the university should.

“The university doesn’t really allow us to learn who these people are, what their agenda is, and by kind of silencing these, they are allowing them the ability to recruit by posting flyers of their organization,” Bruce said. “To me, it’s really dangerous.”

"It doesn't feel like they're protected. They don't feel they're protected by the UI bubble because of things that are happening nationally. And that's unfortunate. And I wish that I could do more to help our students feel protected. But I don't know what to do right now.”

- Tabitha Wiggins

Assistant director of multicultural programs with the UI Center for Student Involvement and Leadership

Yet others worry about highlighting every incident of hate — fearing that would exacerbate anxiety, inspire copycats and give the perpetrators what they want: attention.

ISU also is struggling with the same quandary.

As recent as a year ago, ISU’s Harmon said the campus was sending alerts on each incident.

“But we have decided that we’re now going to judge whether we need to do that on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “Because we believe that part of the goal of some of these hate groups is to get attention and get people angry and frustrated. We feel like we have to somewhat balance: Is it something new that we need to let people know about? Is there some danger involved?”


Even as all three of Iowa’s campuses struggle with budget cuts, the universities have publicly espoused improving the campus climate.

In 2016, UI administrators touted investments in the university’s four cultural and resource centers — the Afro-American center; the Asian Pacific American Cultural Center; the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Resource Center; and the Latino Native American Cultural Center. Last month, UI Student Government voted to allocate $30,800 for programming at the centers.

Indeed, the resource centers have become ground zero for incidents of bias and seeking help for the victims.

In January, just before the 2018 Women’s March, people in the UI Department of Gender, Women’s and Sexual Studies learned alt-right groups might target their department or the resource centers. The cultural centers chose to have shorter hours after a website promoted a neo-Nazi poster campaign.

That never materialized, and hoards turned out for the Women’s Mach on the Ped Mall.

But the entities wanted to be prepared, as their students have reported other acts of discrimination.

“We do hear that kind of talk — about things being placed on doors and in dorms,” said Linda Kroon, director of the UI’s Women’s Resource Action Center. “There are concerns about comments that people hear or make and messages they see on social media, raising the level of discomfort and tension.”

Concerns have prompted requests for extra police presence at the cultural centers — especially at night.

“I’ve been in constant communication with our (University of Iowa Police Department) and we’ve talked about escalated visibility during the nighttime hours, and they’ve been really responsive to that,” said the UI’s Wiggins.


But that bump in police presence isn’t going to solve the bigger problems dividing society and plaguing campuses.

“I think it’s a really tense time. And I feel that,” Wiggins said. “ ... It’s less of a bubble at the University of Iowa right about now. It doesn’t feel like they’re protected. They don’t feel they’re protected by the UI bubble because of things that are happening nationally. And that’s unfortunate. And I wish that I could do more to help our students feel protected. But I don’t know what to do right now.”

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