UMD Students Continue To Fight For Hate Speech Reform Amidst Recent Injustices

When a noose was found in the kitchen of the University of Maryland's chapter of Phi Kappa Tau in April, Yanet Amanuel saw the move as increasingly brazen and incredibly unsettling.

Then 2nd. Lt. Richard Collins, a black Bowie State University student, was killed on campus. 

As the executive activism chair for the university’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Amanuel gathered members of 25 student groups that comprised ProtectUMD, a coalition of various student groups from marginalized identities. The group, which formed as a response to the last presidential election, had previously issued 68 demands for new programs, resources and initiatives to serve marginalized student populations on campus. They've since decided to issue four more. 

UMD announced plans to hire a hate-bias response coordinator back in November, and issued new policies addressing hate bias incidents in response to the outcry from campus organizations including ProtectUMD and the SGA. 

“[The] division is in process of transitioning the diversity officer role to another employee and that change happened shortly before the incident procedures were announced publicly,” Director of University Relations Beth Javier-Wong said.

The new protocol, which gives community members the option to report hate-bias incidents to the University of Maryland Police Department or the university’s Office of Civil Rights & Sexual Misconduct, comes after school officials struck down the University Senate’s idea of a campus-wide ban on hate symbols.

“A clear and transparent protocol for hate-bias incidents on our campus is essential to ensuring a sense of safety for our students, faculty and staff,” said UMD chief diversity officer Roger L. Worthington. “I believe this is an important step forward in maintaining a campus community deeply rooted in equity, diversity and inclusion.”

Disputes on college campuses have gone from internal – with students protesting and administration trying to calm them, to external – with students trying to stop speakers and administration working to protect free speech.

According to a survey conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, more than half of today’s students say that it’s important to be part of a campus community where they are not exposed to intolerant or offensive ideas. More than 3/4 of black students and more than 2/3 of Latino students agree with that idea.

The notion that hate speech should be suppressed is becoming increasingly prevalent as colleges become more diverse and social media platforms make it easier for hate speech to spread. The survey showed that about 1/3 of students say hate speech should be protected by the First Amendment. Almost 1/2 say it should not protect hate speech at all.

The question of what qualifies as hate speech has heightened the argument over whether it should be tolerated.

“Under the law you have free speech until it incites a response or violence,” said Robert Koulish, the director of MLAW programs and senior research fellow at the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at UMD. “On the college campus it becomes more complicated. How do we create a climate in which we get to the problem without having to draw the line?” 

The current University of Maryland non-discriminatory policy labels hate and intimidation symbols as discrimination and harassment — which it defines as "conduct, whether verbal, physical, written, graphic or electronic that threatens, intimidates, offends, belittles, denigrates, or shows an aversion toward an individual or group.” 

Other schools in the Big Ten have defined hate speech and hate-bias as assaults, race-related posters and graffiti increasingly afflicting college campuses. 

In August, an Ohio State student’s racist comments went viral on Twitter. In September, a protest over recent racist acts of vandalism on the University of Michigan campus ended in a fight and posters promoting white supremacy appeared at Purdue University. 

Identity Evropa, a white nationalist group whose members "peddle the delusion of white genocide," has put up posters at Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan, UMD and Rutgers University. The group, which does not admit Jews as members, was part of the high-profile protests against the removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this year.

“It’s really upsetting that these groups are still around and trying to spread hate…[but] it is imperative to admit that as a campus, we have endured many hate bias incidents. Hopefully this legislation will make students more knowledgeable about incidents on campus, as many students are not aware that they happen so frequently,” said Elysa Zebersky, a member of Maryland’s Hillel, a Jewish organization on campus. 

There is no official definition on a national level but the Anti-Defamation League has created an online database of hate symbols to provide “an overview of many of the symbols most frequently used by a variety of white supremacist groups and movements, as well as some other types of hate groups.”

As these episodes become common place across the country, more American universities are avoiding controversial speech altogether by banning polarizing speakers. The University of California, Berkeley, erupted into near-riots in February during protests against professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and again in May over President Donald Trump. 

When political scientist Charles Murray spoke in March at Middlebury College in Vermont, protesters got so rowdy that a professor accompanying him was injured. In April, Berkeley tried to cancel right-wing pundit Ann Coulter's visit to the college, citing safety concerns.

Prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida in October after a local lawyer threatened to sue on First Amendment grounds that state public universities must allow speakers to come no matter their point of view. Reacting to Mr. Spencer’s coming appearance, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Alachua County of North Florida. The university said that security cost around $500,000, for Spencer’s two-hour visit. 

“I think we are in the middle of an incredible shift in perspectives. In my experience the younger people who race for peace with us at our events are very aware and engaged. Most are not satisfied with the mistreatment of people or with the generalizations that have been part of hate speech,” said Leigh Giles-Brown, the founder of Races for Peace, a nonprofit that combats hate speech through races and educational programs. “There is more work to be done to ensure young people are not left alone to discern the complex messages and manipulative language that is part of hate speech.”

“We have a long way to go… but we are working with delegates like Angela Angel on a hate crime legislation that will require the university to define hate speech and free speech, consequences for those who commit hate crimes, mandatory cultural competency training and transparent and effective reporting. We will be introducing the bill on campus Jan. 15,” said Yanet Amanuel.