At least two colleges have rescinded athletic and admissions offers to incoming freshmen who made racist comments about black people on social media in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man. Other colleges have begun investigations or said they will discipline students who also posted hateful and racially offensive messages.
Heated debates about the controversy continue to take place on social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. While many students are speaking out against racial injustices, others have made statements in defense of Derek Chauvin, the police officer charged with Floyd’s murder; promoted violent acts against protesters; and said black people should “get over it.”
“In America you are allowed to be racist as long as you don’t act on it,” tweeted Sean Glaze, who was set to attend Xavier University this fall as a freshman on the cross-country and track and field teams. Glaze also suggested that Ku Klux Klan rallies were less violent than the last week's protests, according to screenshots of his tweets published by WKRC, a local news station. Xavier, a Jesuit institution located in Cincinnati, announced on June 3 that it had revoked Glaze’s admission offer and that the “offensive, racially-charged” posts do not reflect the university’s values. The university did not release Glaze's name, which was published on Twitter and in social media reports.
“Xavier remains committed to maintaining a community that supports all of our members as we cultivate lives of reflection, compassion and informed action,” a statement published on the university’s Twitter account stated.
Gabe Warren, a rising sophomore on the Xavier cross-country and track and field teams, said he couldn’t “believe this kid would say something so egregiously bigoted.” Warren said he and his teammates became aware of the posts and past posts in which Glaze used the N-word. Warren, who is white, said while the posts didn't attack him personally, the team “100 percent” backed their black teammates and the university’s decision.
“It was all a collective shock, disappointment and horror about what he had said,” Warren said. “The university definitely took the right action, quickly.”
In a phone call with Inside Higher Ed, Glaze said he is “deeply regretful” and that he has sent an apology letter to Xavier.
Marquette University rescinded the admission offer of an incoming lacrosse athlete after screenshots of her “offensive” post on Snapchat, a private messaging app, were circulated on Twitter. In her post, the incoming student compared and justified Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes with activists’ kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
“We have made the decision to rescind the incoming student’s offer of admission and athletics scholarship, effective immediately,” Marquette said in a tweet, responding to a screenshot of the incoming student’s post. “We are called to build a nurturing, inclusive community where all people feel safe, supported, welcomed and celebrated.”
While the incoming freshman’s name was shared widely on Twitter, a statement from Marquette did not name her. The statement said the decision was made "Following an internal review involving the Division of Student Affairs, Undergraduate Admissions, Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, and Intercollegiate Athletics, and in alignment with our Guiding Value …"
Breanna Flowers, president of Marquette’s Black Student Council, and Lazabia Jackson, the council's vice president, told the Journal-Sentinel that while they supported the university’s decision, “It's time for Marquette to wake up and abide by their Jesuit values and treat their black students like they matter.” They noted that black students make up only 4 percent of Marquette’s undergraduate enrollment.
Other universities, such as the University of Delaware and Temple University in Philadelphia, have been notified of students posting hateful speech in the wake of Floyd’s death, and have issued statements saying they are considering disciplinary action through their codes of conduct. These statements have alarmed the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a civil liberties watchdog group that advocates for free speech on college campuses. FIRE is concerned about the investigation and punishment of students’ and faculty members’ “controversial speech,” especially at public universities, which are subject to the First Amendment, the organization said in a statement.
It is legally easier for colleges to address hateful speech by incoming students than matriculating students because admissions offers generally have a clause that reserve the right of colleges to rescind offers, said Will Creeley, senior vice president of legal and public advocacy for FIRE. Private, religious institutions like Marquette and Xavier may even have stricter provisions that set out behavioral expectations based in principle, he said.
But legal questions still remain about how and if public institutions can discipline students for speech on social media. Creeley said university administrators are seeking answers to that question from FIRE in light of the recent outcry to hold students accountable for tweets and posts. The University of Delaware’s nondiscrimination policy, which it will use to investigate comments on social media by at least two students, states that it “prohibits discrimination on university property” or discrimination by students and staff members if it occurs within a university-recognized activity, creates a hostile environment for another student or staff member, disrupts normal university functions and "is egregiously offensive to the university’s mission" or poses a threat to campus.
Creeley said in some ways, the “social condemnation” and counterspeech against students who post offensive remarks on social media will be more effective than punishment by their universities.
“It will serve in some ways for good and in some ways for ill to force students to think again about what they say and do on social media accounts,” Creeley said. “The ‘expel first, ask questions later’ response may well have collateral damage that’s unanticipated or contrary to the educational mission of the university.”
Warren, the Xavier athlete, said the incoming student’s racist language was protected by freedom of speech, but that doesn’t mean it has “freedom from consequences.”
“Xavier has every freedom to remove him, just like he has every freedom to say or not to say what he said,” Warren said.