It turns out that there is still time in 2014 for another furious debate in higher education about outspoken views, civility and free speech on Twitter.
This time the focus is a Brandeis University student who over the weekend made two posts to her personal Twitter account. Khadijah Lynch, the student, hasn't been talking about the controversy. She has deleted her entire Twitter account.
One said "i have no sympathy for the nypd officers who were murdered today" and the other elaborated slightly to say "lmao, all i just really dont have sympathy for the cops who were shot. i hate this racist fucking country."
The conservative website Truth Revolt wrote about the comments by Lynch, a junior who at the time was the undergraduate representative in the African and Afro-American studies department. The website also noted prior comments Lynch made on Twitter such as "what the fuck even IS 'non-violence'" and "the fact that black people have not burned this country down is beyond me."
The article quickly spread on social media, with many conservative commenters urging Brandeis to expel Lynch. Her supporters online have noted that many of the comments on social media (and apparently sent to Lynch) go well beyond criticizing her to making threats against her. Her supporters also criticize the use of her photographs (which she had earlier posted online) on social media as endangering her.
A Facebook group called Expel Khadijah Lynch From Brandeis was created Monday, and it quickly attracted followers. The stated purpose of the group: "to get this woman expelled from Brandeis and exposed for the racist that she is!"
The African and Afro-American studies department issued a statement Monday in which it said that Lynch had resigned as undergraduate departmental representative. The statement distanced the department from her Twitter comments but asked that they be understood in the context of legitimate anger over the treatment of black people.
Of this weekend's killings of police officers, the statement said: "The comments of Ms. Lynch, made through her own personal Twitter account, do not reflect the views of AAAS as a department. AAAS, unequivocally, does not promote nor condones a disregard for the loss of human life. The deaths of officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu are a tragedy and should be treated with proper respect. We express our most sincere condolences to their family and loved ones."
Continuing, the statement urged understanding of the context of statements such as those made by Lynch. "In 1961, the great American writer James Baldwin poignantly noted that, 'To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.' While it may be easy and convenient at this emotionally charged moment to condemn Ms. Lynch, we must also strive to understand why she would make these comments. This means openly and honestly recognizing the very real pain and frustration that many young people of color struggle with in trying to navigate their place in a society that all too often delegitimizes their existence."
And even if people want to condemn Lynch, the statement continues, they should do so in ways that do not promote bigotry or threaten her.
"As a society and as a university, it is imperative that we always uphold the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. We also recognize that with these rights comes both responsibility and accountability. In this context, social media can be both productive and dangerous. As witnessed over the past year in regards to the 'Black Lives Matter' movement, social media has the power to educate, energize and organize people in unprecedented ways. However, with the click of a button, social media also can give comments expressed in the heat of the moment a potentially regrettable permanency. The comments expressed by Ms. Lynch in no way excuse those made in response to her tweets, many of which have been horrifically racist, sexist, Islamophobic and threatening physical violence. These appalling comments should be resoundingly condemned with even greater passion."
Change.org features petitions created Monday urging Brandeis to expel Lynch and urging people to support her right of free expression.
The former features comments such as "I believe she has said things to threaten the United States and its agents of law enforcement" and "This student has disgraced the university that she has and does represent. As an alum, she will continue to represent this university and place it in a poor light. While I am all for free speech, I believe we need to be teaching our youth more appropriate ways to express their anger and frustration than advocating for the death of law enforcement officers and the country that has so much promise."
The latter condemns both the publicizing of the Lynch's comments and the reaction they have received. This petition says: "Speaking is never without fear of scrutiny and judgment, but we are all entitled to share our opinions however provocative they may be. In fact, no one reading this petition can say that they have never shared an opinion that did not align with a majority; therefore we cannot chastise another for their opinion. This past weekend, Khadijah Lynch spoke her mind on issues regarding the execution of two Brooklyn police officers. Opinions she has a right to share. While we may not all share her views, we cannot ignore the public slander that ensued due to the misguided, diluted and unscrupulous representation of her character.... Khadijah is a black woman and youth activist whose presence on the Brandeis campus is just as necessary as any other student. The deliberate targeting and misrepresentation of Khadijah's thoughts as well as the misuse of her personal photos have catalyzed a series of hate speech that puts her life and safety in danger. This is Slander. This is Defamation of Character. This is Cyber bullying. This should not be condoned."
Andrew Flagel, senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis, posted a statement on his website in which he criticized both Lynch's comments and the way many have responded to them.
He wrote that Brandeis "condemns the terrible violence against policemen in New York" and that "one of our students posted comments in social media that were hurtful and disrespectful, inconsistent with our institutional values."
But Flagel added that discussion of those comments should be civil. "While we in no way condone the original posts, we likewise are appalled by efforts to diminish speech and instill fear in our students. Brandeis remains a community built to support social justice and embrace intellectual inquiry. We encourage a fair and thoughtful discussion of these issues, free of threats."
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