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Terrorism or Stupidity?

March 29, 2005

Grinnell College, a respected liberal arts college in rural Iowa, might not seem a prime target for a terrorist attack. But a Grinnell student is in jail -- facing felony charges of threatening a terrorist act of violence at the college.

Those who know him say that the student isn't a terrorist or even someone capable of a violent act. Experts on higher education liability say that's beside the point. These days, a student who posts a violent comment in a chat room needs to assume that the comment will make its way to the police, and that the student could end up behind bars.

Paul Wainright, the student at Grinnell, apparently posted the message on Plans, an online discussion area frequented by students at the college. Prior to spring break, some students on the site were complaining about recent drug arrests on the campus. A message attributed to Wainwright urged students as follows (punctuation and capitalization per the posting):

"Please come back to school armed with whatever lethal weapon you have access too. If we can't depend upon the administration to protect the bubble we were promised and that they are selling us for 34,000 goddamn dollars a year, then we will have to take matters in our own hands. That means violence and bloodshed. That means warfare. That means KILL THE MOTHERFUCKING POLICE THAT YOU SEE ON CAMPUS AND KILL THE MOTHERFUCKING NARCS WHO ARE GETTING YOUR FRIENDS ARRESTED. RUBY RIDGE MOTHER FUCKERS. LET THE STREETS RUN RED."

Jody Matherly, chief of police for the town of Grinnell, Iowa, said that his department received several complaints from people about a "threatening communication" in which others were urged to join the author in acts of violence against the college and police officers. An investigation led to Wainright, who was on spring break at his home in Wisconsin, and was arrested there. Matherly did not release the posting, but Grinnell students provided it.

The charge Wainright faces carries a possible sentence of five years in prison.

Matherly said that he had advised the college to heighten security on the campus.

Mickey Munley, vice president for communications at Grinnell, emphasized that the site where the posting was made "is not a site that the college owns or operates or manages," but he said that the posting "came to the attention of the college, and the police took the investigation from there."

He stressed that police officials made the judgment on what to do. "Hindsight is always 20/20," he said, but even if some think that there was no real threat at Grinnell, people who have not acted on clues abut possible violence have been "a contributing factor to a lot of tragic circumstances in our country in the last few years, very horrific and sad situations."

One Grinnell student, who said that he knows Wainright but doesn't consider himself a close friend, said that in online discussions, some students said they were upset by Wainright's posting, but many others "knew it was in jest" and are now more angry about his arrest. "It would be hard to know from the outside looking in at the site what you are seeing, and I assume the person who flagged this was an administrator," said the student.

The student let Inside Higher Ed look at the site with his password, and indeed the site is hard to make sense of as an outsider. Because Grinnell is a small college, it's clear that many students make postings that assume a lot of knowledge on the part of readers, and the postings range from serious to silly -- with many appearing to be the kind of thing a college student might write after a beer or three.

Another Grinnell student sent an e-mail message saying: "The post looks very bad when read out of context, but it was all written with tongue firmly -- very firmly -- in cheek, and no one who knew him at all well doubted that it was a joke. Unfortunately, someone with no sense of proportion or context (probably an administrator, although no one has claimed responsibility for the atrocity) contacted the police about it, and Paul was arrested. Apparently at no point during the process did anyone step back and consider, for instance, whether a student at left-liberal Grinnell would ever refer to 'Ruby Ridge' any way but ironically. From many Grinnell students' perspectives the matter is not about our physical security, but about the threat posed to our civil liberties by overzealous and unreflective administrators and police."

Chief Matherly, however, said it would be irresponsible for authorities to dismiss any violent statement as campus hijinks. "Any threat of terrorism is a serious threat of terrorism," he said. "There are no pranks. There are no jokes. It's one thing to stand out in a field when no one is around and talk about things, but once you put it into an arena when people fear for their lives and safety, that's different."

While some students are criticizing the college and the police for acting, a post on Plans (that could not be independently verified) from Wainright's mother was understanding.

"Of course we who know and love Paul, know that what was posted was said tongue-in-cheek with no malicious intent," she wrote. "Unfortunately, in the current climate such sleep-deprived rants will be taken seriously by some. It is totally appropriate for authorities to check it out. As a parent I would want to be assured that this was being looked into. If I were an administrator, I may be terrified that someone might actually carry out any violence toward me."

Sheldon E. Steinbach, general counsel and vice president of the American Council on Education, said "Grinnell had no choice but to act" upon reading the post. "Once a post is out there in such a visible way, it requires the college to act."

"In another day, someone would have called the kid, and the kid would have said, 'I wrote that when I was drunk,' and it would never have gone this far," Steinbach said. "But college students need to remember that after 9/11, they just need to exercise better judgment."

Steinbach said it was beside the point that the student is viewed by many as nonviolent, especially since the posting urged others to join in violence. "What if a student had taken him seriously and an incident had occurred? The institution would have had a tragedy and been subject to ridicule and lawsuits."

 

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