A Fraught Balancing Act

Some college leaders quickly cracked down on students and faculty voicing support for rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol. Others walked a fine line between protecting free speech rights and tamping down incendiary language.

January 11, 2021
 
Alex Edelman/Contributor via Getty Images

In the aftermath of the attacks on the United States Capitol by supporters of President Trump, college leaders are being asked to confront dangerous and offensive speech by students, faculty, and staff members that promote false claims about the 2020 election and support the violence that occurred last week as a result of the spread of such claims.

The calls for administrators to rid their colleges of those who hold such views, and to examine how their institutions combat misinformation, is often complicated by First Amendment protections. Colleges and universities, after all, are meant to be forums for students to voice, debate and defend arguments founded in truth, experts on political expression said.

Some of the comments supporting the rioting in the nation’s capital were founded in falsehoods, however. They often echoed the sentiments that led to the violence -- such as claims that the election was "stolen" from Trump -- and justified the actions of the people who stormed the Capitol building. Such comments, most of them posted on social media, must be treated by public colleges as protected speech even though many students, alumni and faculty members fear the potential of the comments to stoke further lawlessness. (Note: This sentence was revised to clarify that although comments posted on social media are not protected speech, the law requires public colleges to treat them as such.)

For instance, the College Republicans chapter at the Georgia Institute of Technology minimized the attack on Twitter and said that racial justice protests over the summer in Washington, D.C., caused worse damage, despite being mostly peaceful. “Cops let Black Lives Matter riot and kill people in the streets for six months,” said one tweet, which was later deleted.

“All cops are bastards,” the College Republicans chapter tweeted on the evening of Jan. 6, as law enforcement officers cleared the Capitol of rioters. That tweet, also since deleted, was screenshotted and circulated by Georgia Tech students and alumni who expressed outrage at the statements and brought them to the attention of Ángel Cabrera, the institute’s president. The Georgia Tech College Republicans did not respond to requests for comment sent to a Facebook account and email addresses associated with the group.

Jaden McNeil -- a former Kansas State University student who previously made national headlines for an offensive comment about George Floyd in June -- again caused a stir with tweets that showed him at the pro-Trump riot. McNeil, who is the founder of a pro-Trump student group called America First Students, falsely claimed the election was “stolen” and that the law enforcement response to the rioting demonstrated that “police brutality is against American patriots not black thugs.”

A spokesperson for Kansas State said in an email that McNeil is not enrolled in classes at the university for the spring 2021 semester. The spokesperson declined to provide more information, citing federal privacy laws. McNeil did not respond to a request for comment.

Saba Tshibaka, an organizer for Black Terps Matter, a student group at the University of Maryland, said contrary to comments made by conservative students, “there is no comparison” for the violence that occurred at the Capitol. To Tshibaka, who demonstrated against police brutality in Washington, D.C. throughout 2020 in the aftermath of the killings of Floyd and other unarmed Black people, the attack on the Capitol affirmed that Black protesters will be treated more harshly by law enforcement than white rioters, including white supremacists, who were not stopped from scaling walls and trashing the federal building.

“It made a mockery of what we call America,” Tshibaka said, adding that the clearly disparate treatment of white and Black protesters epitomizes the need for organizations such as Black Terps Matter, “and why we exist on a college campus.”

She said the public discourse about the apparent double standard in policing demands closer examination.

“The path that this has to go through is awareness, action and reform,” she said.

College administrators nationally were forced to walk a fine line between protecting students' free speech rights and making sure students of color felt protected and heard after Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May and a nationwide movement for racial justice followed. Heated debates raged on social media, and current and incoming students were called out for posting racist comments about Floyd's death. Students of many racial backgrounds, feeling threatened and hurt by the speech, demanded that their colleges take action against the offenders. Several students who had been accepted by colleges and or committed to athletic programs had their acceptances revoked as a result of offensive comments they posted online.

However, comments made by students that were already enrolled at the colleges at the time, especially public universities, were generally protected by the First Amendment. And those calling for public colleges to take disciplinary action against defenders of the violence at the Capitol will be similarly disappointed, said Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney and director of the individual rights defense program for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a civil liberties watchdog group that defends the rights of students and faculty members.

Philip DiStefano, chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder, a public university, has resisted calls from members of the campus to fire John Eastman, a visiting scholar in the Benson Center for Western Civilization, Thought and Policy, who made remarks at a rally in Washington before the Capitol attack. Eastman, a professor at Chapman University in California, has spread false claims about election fraud and about Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s eligibility to hold public office.

DiStefano said the university would not dismiss Eastman for his protected political speech.

“I will not violate the law by removing a visiting professor from a position that he will occupy at most for only a few more months, as his contract will expire in May,” DiStefano said in a written statement. “However, Professor Eastman’s conduct does not reflect the values of our university. He has embarrassed our institution.”

In contrast, Saint Vincent College, a Catholic institution outside Pittsburgh, announced that it had investigated one of its faculty members, Rick Saccone, who is also a former Pennsylvania state senator. Saccone posted on Facebook about attending the Capitol attack and said that more moderate Republicans who don’t fully back Trump, often referred to as RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only, “must be thrown out. Purged.” Another of Saccone’s posts from the riot, which is now deleted, said, “We are storming the capitol,” according to TribLIVE, a Pennsylvania news publication.

Saccone did not respond to a Facebook message requesting comment. Saint Vincent's announced his resignation the day after news of his attendance at the riot and his social media postings were publicized.

“We teach the importance of the sanctity of human life, the rule of law, civil discourse, free speech and civil engagement, and we strongly condemn the extreme actions of violence and destruction that were on display at our nation’s capital,” Father Paul Taylor, the college’s president, said in a written statement. “We believe that all individuals have the right to an opinion, but when beliefs and opinions devolve into illegal and violent activities, there will be no tolerance.”

Public institutions, such as Georgia Tech, Kansas State and CU Boulder, are severely limited in their ability to control or limit offensive, inaccurate or dishonest speech, such as the claim that the presidential election was “stolen” from Trump, Steinbaugh said. The comments by Georgia Tech's College Republicans that attempted to justify the rioting at the Capitol could only be shut down if they “cause imminent conflict.” The actions of individuals who invaded the Capitol were not prompted by the group’s tweets, he said.

Still, Steinbaugh said, “That doesn’t mean that a university has to remain silent.”

Jake Present, a senior who studies computer science at Georgia Tech, said he's disappointed by the responses of Cabrera and other administrators to the College Republicans chapter’s “incendiary” tweets. Present, who identifies as a progressive, found the statements from Cabrera in the days after the Capitol attack particularly hollow because they didn’t address the situation on campus, and because just last month, Georgia Tech invited Mike Pompeo, secretary of state and an ally to President Trump, to speak at an event on campus.

By “inviting people who had just been promoting falsehoods,” Present said, the college appeared to be endorsing the Trump administration's policies and rhetoric. Present noted that Pompeo joked in November about the Trump administration cooperating in “a smooth transfer of power” into a second term.

Present said Cabrera’s recent comments about the violence at the Capitol were little more than “another voice in the stream” of college leaders making statements about the turmoil.

“It’s just talk. It seems like he’s just doing the boilerplate of what he feels he needs to do,” Present said. “Even just some tacit acknowledgment of what’s going on at the school would be more than what he’s talking about right now, that democracy will be fine and talking about his upbringing.”

Georgia Tech administrators subsequently requested that the faculty adviser for the College Republicans chapter advise its members "on what is appropriate language to post in the spirit of civil discourse and protected free speech," and "provide guidance about what crosses a line in that regard and will not be tolerated," said a written statement provided by Blair Meeks, a spokesperson for the institute.

"The student group responsible for the posts took them down on their own," the statement said.

Cabrera wrote in a blog post on Jan. 7 that watching the “disturbing” attack on the Capitol reminded him of his teenage years in Spain, when the military attempted a coup during a congressional session. The experience taught him “how fragile democracy is, and how every generation must work hard to preserve it,” Cabrera wrote.

“I never imagined I would witness something remotely similar in the U.S., a nation I have always admired for the strength of its republic and its culture of democracy -- and which I now proudly call my own,” Cabrera wrote. “Yet, as painful as yesterday’s events were, I know American democracy will emerge stronger … we, as educators, have an essential responsibility to ensure that every generation is prepared to inherit this republic, make it its own, and make it better.”

Michelle Deutchman, executive director of the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, said the best way for college leaders to rebut, challenge or discourage “false and dangerous” comments at their institutions is to “shine light on the falsehoods” and “to equip students with the tools to carry out fact-based inquiry.”

“It’s important to make a clear delineation of what we saw yesterday -- it was mob violence, it was not protest, it was not protected speech,” Deutchman said. “I really cannot conjecture on how many students may or may not believe these false narratives, but educators need to handle it like any political debate when one side is not based in evidence.”

Present, the Georgia Tech student, was doubtful that educators could make a dent in the firmly held beliefs of some pro-Trump, conservative students, including their distrust of government and liberal “elites” in media and academe. He believes college presidents, other administrators and faculty should push back harder against right-wing propaganda and conspiracy theories.

“They’re not the people to try and convince anyone. Anything they do will inadvertently ring hollow,” he said of college administrators and faculty members. “They need to step aside and do their best to discourage the spread of disinformation honestly within curricula across the country.”

Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard College Center for the Study of Hate, said millions of Americans on both sides of the aisle are deeply invested in an “us versus them” political narrative, and students and faculty members are no exception. Trump’s widely repeated narrative that the election was "stolen" from him combined with some Americans' tendency to “define people who disagree with you as worthless or less of a human being” are what led to the hatred and violence at the Capitol, Stern said. College campuses are “the best place to tease out why we jump into those buckets,” he said.

“Students have a right to test out ideas, even ideas that we might find detestable,” he said. “It’s not the university’s interest to define certain ideas as out of bounds. But if there are ideas that they find disturbing, it’s an opportunity to try and educate.”

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