On Thursday November 7, 2019 the Mayborn School of Journalism hosted an event at the University of North Texas called “When Hate Comes to Campus.” The purpose of the program was to provide a legal overview of the First Amendment and Free Speech led by Caitlin Sewell, Assistant General Counsel for the UNT System, along with a panel of UNT faculty. The event took an unexpected turn when Sewell nonchalantly used the n-word to make a point about protected speech. From a statement from UNT’s Student Government Association Sewell’s words were “If I said something offensive–you know, you can say a lot of offensive things in here because it’s impossible to talk about the First Amendment without saying horrible things. Um, you know, ‘You’re just a dumb n—-r, and I hate you.’ That alone, that’s protected speech.” Sewell’s use of such a heinous racial epithet stung the hears of event attendees and the rest of the student body who heard those words via the recording that was shared on Twitter.
Student attendees were outraged and shared their feelings in real time. Sewell continued to speak and uses another example using the f-word. But this time she was careful to censor herself and not say the word aloud. Many were courageous enough to challenge Sewell’s language live and direct. One student exclaimed “Excuse me! Why did you censor the f-word, but not the n-word?”. Sewell responds with an apology. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think anything about that.” Audience members shared their dissatisfaction with her apology. Sewell proceeds, “It came out without thought.” Another attendee asked, “How often do you say it for it to just roll off your tongue?” Sewell’s rebuttal leaves students unsettled, “I literally have never said that word in a public setting before.” This only registered to students that Sewell used the word privately. At this point, she had said it all with that one sentence. No form of apology she issued could suffice.
After the event proceeded, news of what had happened was shared on Twitter, including recordings from the event. Students were offended, disappointed, and even furious with Sewell’s blatant display of cultural insensitivity. UNT’s President Neal Smatresk released a statement on behalf of the university to ensure students and faculty that Sewell’s language “was not reflective of the values of our university community.” Students were not satisfied with the statement, and called for her immediate termination. Sewell submitted her resignation effective immediately the next morning. Members of the UNT community were notified via email.
UNT’s Student Government Association decided to act immediately. The SGA in partnership with UNT’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and UNT’S Black Student Union created a list of demands to prevent situations like this from occurring anymore. The demands were turned into a change.org petition with over 2000 signatures in three days.
I spoke with SGA President Yolian Ogbu to discuss the next steps to moving forward. This week, SGA is hosting its first ever General Student Body Meeting on Thursday, November 14 from 6pm to 8pm to address student concerns about the event and provide an update to their progress. This event will take place in Union 314A. “We created a coalition of black student leaders comprised of members of SGA, BSU, and NAACP to work together to address these concerns to administration. We had a meeting with the President on Monday, and we hope to present at the Board of Regents meeting this week.”
Do you feel that impact of petition signatures is enough to encourage administration to take these concerns seriously?
“Honestly, I am hopeful. This is the third time an incident like this has happened within the past three years.” Here she is speaking of incidents of cultural insensitivity not exclusively use of the n-word. “When something like this happens, it is often seen as an isolated incident. We have all these incidents coming together and this idea that our coalition would potentially show administration that this isn’t isolated this is a pattern. We are continuously seeing more racially incentive things happen on this campus and there needs to be institutional change. The way I see it, unfortunately, it is up to students to continually follow up with admin. Because what they are banking on is that we’re just students and we’ll forget about it. But we can’t let that happen this time.”
For students that feel that they don’t have any power because they don’t hold a leadership title, what would you say to empower them?
“I firmly believe that you don’t need a title to prove that you have power. I’m lucky enough to be in this position and in this position, I am trying to allow people to have a platform to speak. Which is why we’ve opened the floor to have a petition. Because I think for a lot of people, they don’t have the time to go to meetings. I’m asking you to do a low effort, low maintenance thing by signing this petition,unt you are putting your name out there saying that you fully believe in the demands. We will present this petition to administration. We are asking y’all [students] to show support so when we do need student support y’all are there for us.”