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UConn Criticized From All Sides in Racial Incident

After university police arrested two students who used N-word, students and national groups say university did too little, while others say it overreacted.

October 25, 2019
 
University of Connecticut

A number of news organizations, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, published articles earlier this week describing a racist incident at the University of Connecticut. Two students have been arrested by campus police and criminally charged for violating a Connecticut hate crime statute. On Oct. 11, the two white male students were recorded walking through the university campus yelling the N-word. Though university officials have publicly condemned the incident and announced a search for a chief diversity officer, Vox reports that black UConn students are demanding more action by the administration against racism.

Students and faculty have taken to the pages of the university’s student paper, The Daily Campus, to criticize the administration’s response as slow and underwhelming. The paper’s editorial board reported that Thomas Katsouleas, UConn's president, waited nearly one week to send out a universitywide email condemning the incident. “In that email, he did not lead with a condemnation of the acts. Instead, he first discussed his search for a new Chief Diversity Officer, then mentioned the incident,” the editorial board wrote. Sociology professor Noel Cazenave described in a letter to the editor what he said is an ongoing culture of racism at the university, including under the administration of Susan Herbst, the former president.

The university’s NAACP chapter also wrote a letter to the editor, explaining another racial incident where two white male students, suspected to be part of the fraternity Delta Epsilon Psi, allegedly called a woman a racial slur at a fraternity party. The chapter included a list of demands for the university, including an investigation into Delta Epsilon Psi; a public apology from the fraternity and statement from the administration; the designing of a first-year experience around diversity; racial discrimination and hate crimes training mandated for every student; and a cluster hire of black administrators, faculty members, staff and police officers.

David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, released a statement on behalf of the organization supporting the UConn NAACP’s list of demands and criticizing the administration’s response.

"Policing is an inherently white supremacist institution, and we remain skeptical of its ability to address racism and bigotry," he wrote. "Under existing free speech case law the students who were arrested will almost certainly not be convicted, making it imperative for the university to immediately address racism on campus, including but not limited to these recent incidents."

David Cole, national legal director of the national ACLU, clarified in a statement on the same page that the actions of the two students who were arrested, while reprehensible, are not criminal. “The First Amendment protects even offensive and hateful speech, so long as it does not rise to the level of incitement to violence, criminal harassment or true threats,” he said.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote a public letter to Katsouleas and the UConn chief of police, arguing that the university's investigation into the incident -- by virtue of its status as a public university -- and the Connecticut state statute the two students were charged under are both unconstitutional and in violation of the First Amendment.

Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, also wrote a public letter to Katsouleas.

In it he supported the FIRE letter, emphasized that the students were not aiming the word at anyone in particular, and said that students need to be prepared to hear such words. "I know about racial calumny. I am myself an African American. I was for 10 years assistant executive director of the NAACP," he wrote. "Whatever the motivation of the speaker of the N word, it is common parlance in some black and non-black neighborhoods. In some, it is the way young people speak -- how to greet or shame or befriend each other."

Meyers has been a frequent guest on the Fox News show Hannity and in 2012 called the NAACP a "hate group" on the show.

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