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Punished for Anti-Racist Satire?

A student at SMU said she was unfairly suspended for putting up fliers to respond to racist posters on campus.

June 13, 2017
 

Southern Methodist University punished a student for tacking up fliers saying, “Why white women should date black men,” her response to racist materials that had been posted around campus urging white women not to date black men.

The institution deemed her fliers prejudiced, too, and indeed, they did contain potentially offensive statements that the student says were satirical. The incident raises questions about when and how a college should take stands on forms of expression.

Emily Walker, who will enter her senior year at SMU in the fall, was given a deferred suspension -- meaning she committed an offense so great that it would constitute a suspension, but officials chose not to enforce the punishment. In the past weeks, she has started publicly discussing her experience with the campus judicial system, claiming the university only seeks to protect its image.

In November, she created and posted her fliers, a reply to posters that had been hung anonymously around campus that month with the header “Why white women shouldn’t date black men.”

The original poster claimed black men were more likely to carry sexually transmitted diseases and abuse their partners.

Southern Methodist quickly condemned the initial fliers, and the president, R. Gerald Turner, released a statement then, telling those who “[commit] to living a life of denigrating others” should find another place to live.

University statements do not specify whether anyone was punished for those fliers.

“The entire community must recommit to discouraging and eliminating such unacceptable behavior. There will be many tense moments nationally over the next few months. During these moments, the SMU community must be able to discuss our differences with mutual respect surrounded by a supportive campus environment for everyone. Anything less is unworthy of who we are,” Turner’s statement said.

But Walker, who at the time worked as a student athletic trainer, often with teams composed largely of black students, felt compelled to show support in some way.

Walker wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed she had seen some football team members cry after the original posting.

“It is important to fight racism so the next generation grows up knowing what is right and what is wrong,” Walker said. “It’s a steep mountain to climb due to the prior generations not prioritizing successful integration of difference races within America.”

She printed fliers with information saying black men were less likely to commit mass shootings and that babies from parents of two different races were likely to be healthier.

Then she started into stereotypes -- what she called satire -- to raise questions about the original posters.

She wrote that black men could more likely to “sexually please” a woman. She included a world map that showed the average size of a penis by country, highlighting the fact that the number was higher in African nations.

“Once you go black,” she wrote on her flier, “you don’t go back.”

Though such platitudes are considered offensive, Walker told a local television station they were meant as satire.

Still, the university considered Walker’s fliers a violation of its nondiscrimination, affirmative action and equal opportunity policy.

Because officials determined Walker had infringed on that policy, she was also in violation of the student code of conduct, they said, and handed her the yearlong deferred suspension, beginning in late March.

Walker was also instructed to write a minimum 1,500-word reflection paper on how she could have more appropriately responded to the first flier.

A university spokesman, Kent Best, said in an emailed statement that federal privacy law prohibits the university from discussing Walker’s case.

“One hallmark of a great university is its willingness to recognize freedom of expression on difficult topics, yet every university struggles with the question of balance when it comes to allegations of harassing and discriminatory speech. At SMU, incidents are investigated under SMU’s nondiscrimination and Title IX harassment policies on a case-by-case basis,” Best said.

When Raven Battles, a Southern Methodist junior and president of the black student association, spoke with a few black men on campus, she said they believed Walker’s flier “hadn’t helped much.”

They felt that by including the sexual stereotypes about black men, it fetishized them, Battles said in an interview.

Over all, the fliers didn’t prompt a huge campus response, mostly because administrators addressed concerns so quickly, Battles said. She described the association’s relationship with the university as positive, saying that officials supported minority students' events and their safety.

In her email to Inside Higher Ed, Walker said she felt the incident created a “chilling effect” on her freedom of speech.

“I can’t open my mouth, because if I do, it’s worth being suspended,” Walker said.

As a private institution, Southern Methodist isn’t obligated to follow the same statutes that protect free speech at a public university. It can and did levy punishments based on its own policies.

But the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which handles discrimination complaints, has previously indicated that a single case of offensive expression wouldn’t constitute harassment that would be barred by federal law.

“In order to establish a hostile environment, conduct must be sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive as to limit or deny the student's ability to participate in or benefit from the educational program,” the office wrote in a 2013 letter to the University of California, Berkeley.

The Education Department at the time was investigating a complaint filed against Berkeley that Jewish students were being discriminated against on campus.

Worrisome to Gary Pavela, an expert in higher education law, and the co-founder of Academic Integrity Seminar, is that the incident at Southern Methodist concerned a woman trying to protect minorities, he said. Pavela's organization tries to teach students the importance of social trust.

Pavela referenced both the 2013 OCR letter to Berkeley and a 1973 Supreme Court case, Papish v. University of Missouri Curators, that ruled a student was inappropriately expelled for distributing a student publication with a risqué cartoon.

The University of Missouri is a public institution.

“My reaction is that neither by OCR standards nor constitutional standards … this meets no definition of unlawful expression I’ve encountered,” Pavela said of Walker’s case.

Southern Methodist has been criticized before for race-related issues on campus. In 2015, two fraternities canceled an off-campus party that President Turner called “racially offensive.”

The “Ice Party” Facebook advertisement featured a black rapper gripping a chain in his mouth.

“It is simply unacceptable for any campus group or individual to employ images and language that promote negative stereotypes and are demeaning to the dignity of any member of our campus community,” Turner said in a statement at the time.

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