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American University protesters at the removal of Gianna Wheeler.

American University students, staff and faculty have had to deal with multiple racially sensitive issues on campus in recent years.

Dan Papscun/The Eagle

The reaction was swift when an anonymous student wrote “Black people suck” on a library whiteboard at American University in February. University leaders responded with an email to the campus denouncing the incident and announcing that the Office of the Dean of Students would investigate and determine whether the incident constituted a violation of the university code of conduct.

“It is unacceptable that anyone would intentionally cause pain in our community through this kind of hateful act,” Fanta Aw, the university’s vice president for undergraduate enrollment, campus life and inclusive excellence, wrote in the email sent out campuswide on Feb. 20. “This incident is particularly harmful to our Black community members during this important celebration of Black History Month.”

An official of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression wrote a letter to university president Sylvia M. Burwell the very next day voicing concerns about the investigation.

Sabrina Conza, a program officer for campus rights advocacy at FIRE who wrote the letter, reminded Burwell that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights policy explicitly states that campus harassment “must include something beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive.”

Conza implied that the administration’s reaction to the incident was out of proportion.

“A single message on a whiteboard that doesn’t appear targeted at anyone, in particular, falls far short of the required standard,” she wrote in the letter. “Accordingly, publicly announcing an investigation of students when the allegations pertain to protected speech alone is not appropriate.”

Alexis Rogers, a Black student in her second year at American, would beg to differ. She found the administration’s actions lacking and said it typified a reflexive response to racial incidents on a campus where the social climate can sometimes be “very political and toxic.” She said instead of responding with urgency when Black students on campus are targeted, administrators quickly send out emails acknowledging the incident and move on.

Rogers, a journalism major, sees this as university leaders being more concerned about protecting the institution’s image than addressing racial incidents head-on. She believes simply acknowledging the incident is not enough and that concrete steps should be taken to prevent similar incidents from happening again.

“They should hold themselves accountable to take these types of instances with severity, and I don’t think that takes place with the Black community here.”

These contrasting but equally dim views of how American University officials handle such incidents, whether racial, religious or political in nature, have sometimes been deeply polarizing on the Washington, D.C., campus. But debates over the differences between free speech and hate speech are now common on college campuses, where nuance is often lost among students who feel attacked or offended by comments and language viewed as hostile and discriminatory and students who feel they’re being silenced or bullied for exercising a protected right to speak their minds. The whiteboard incident at American exemplifies the difficulties institutional leaders face balancing students’ rights to speak freely with the university’s responsibility to protect students from hateful language that makes them feel emotionally assaulted and potentially unsafe.

Matthew Bennett, vice president and chief communications officer at American, said the university is committed to reaching the right balance and ensuring students feel heard.

“We explore each situation thoroughly to understand the facts with as much transparency as possible to help the community understand all the facts,” he said. “And that’s what we do with all situations—we address them using our values and our policies and deal with each situation with its own sets of facts. We have a comprehensive approach.”

FIRE’s February letter to Burwell was the third time the organization wrote to the university in less than a year about what the organization considers free speech violations by the administration.

The first letter was sent in July 2022 after American launched an investigation of eight law school students for alleged discrimination and harassment for expressing views in support of abortion rights in a private GroupMe class chat, which offended a classmate who is antiabortion. Another letter was sent in December questioning limitations on student journalists’ ability to interview university employees, which FIRE argues inhibits press freedom.

Bennett said that the university’s investigation of the library whiteboard incident has been resolved and the person behind it identified. He declined to provide more information, citing privacy laws, but said the student took part in a restorative justice process that brings together the affected parties of an incident “to gather and share thoughts and experiences about the incident in a restorative conference” facilitated by a trained staff member. He said the process may also include “an agreement co-written by the individuals involved on how to move forward and address the impact of a situation, or other constructive dialogue and actions that [help] facilitate learning and resolution.”

A Look Back

American has seen its fair share of such events in recent years. Administrators launched an investigation in 2017 after a student hung bananas with racist commentary scrawled on them throughout the campus. The incident was widely publicized and deeply controversial on campus. The investigation ended a year later with no resolution and no leads on who committed the act. (This paragraph was revised to correct the characterization of the investigation as being controversial.) 

“I know this is disappointing. I recognize the anger and grief that many experienced because of this traumatic event and understand that this is not the outcome we hoped for,” Burwell wrote in a letter to the campus community in 2018. “We must create our own path to healing as a community.”

It wasn’t the first time Black students were harassed on campus with the use of bananas. An African American student said a banana was thrown at her on campus in September 2016, and another found a rotten banana and obscene drawings on her dorm room door that same month.

In 2019, a student recorded a video of another student saying the N-word, and the student said he thought “it’s OK to say any word.” Many students of color on campus were offended and asked university leaders to look into the larger problem of racial incidents at the institution. The university tweeted that it does not condone racist comments on campus, which angered students who viewed the response as tepid inaction.

“Imagine a school so dumb that the punishment for spewing hate speech is a subtweet,” a student replied.

When the context of the video was determined to be about the limits of free expression rather than an attack against another student, university officials deemed it not punishable.

Another incident that sparked student protests and public criticism involved six campus police officers physically removing an African American student, Gianna Wheeler, from her apartment after she was reportedly having a mental breakdown. A disturbing video of her being forcibly removed from the university-managed apartment spread on social media. Wheeler had earlier been suspended from the campus after being accused of assaulting another student and later cleared of the allegation during a student conduct hearing. She subsequently sued the university for discrimination, but the lawsuit was dismissed in October 2022 after she reached a settlement with the university.

A Policy Change

American announced a new freedom of expression policy in fall 2022 outlining the university’s commitment to protecting free expression on campus.

“Each member of this community balances their right to free inquiry with their responsibility to be open to listening and learning, respect the rights of others, and acknowledge each person’s human dignity,” the policy page on the university’s website states.

Bennett said the new policy and accompanying value statement express “why freedom of expression is important, what it means to our community, to our culture of inquiry, as an academic institution, but also the responsibilities that come with speech and expressive conduct.”

Lara Schwartz, senior professorial lecturer in the department of government at American, says it’s important for professors to integrate conversations in the classrooms about policy, specifically campus speech and expressive freedom.

“I think an important thing to recognize is that [a] student’s capacity to be OK with what the rules are, and ours is basically a freedom of expression rule, really depends on their understanding of it,” she said.

American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, established in 2017, encourages faculty from all divisions to conduct research and find ways to tackle racism on campus and provide a safe environment for all students. The center was established in response to a series of racist incidents on campus.

Bennett said the university uses various approaches to encourage free speech and prevent hate speech on campus by encouraging students to engage in civil discourse and teaching them how to have constructive conversations on difficult subjects through courses and different projects. He also noted that antibias and antiharassment training provided by the university is required for all students, faculty and staff members.

Schwartz leads the Project on Civil Discourse at the university's School of Public Affairs, which fosters discourse among students, faculty, and staff. The project is focused on helping students "in understanding speech not only as a matter of rights, but of responsibilities, values, and opportunities" and offers facilitated discussions related to free speech, inclusion, intellectual diversity, tolerance, and political difference, among others. Participating students are encouraged to engage in conversations with peers who have different political beliefs and to explore topics such as the paradox of tolerance and where to draw the line between diversity of opinion. The program also invites guest speakers to address these issues and have discussions with students. (This paragraph was revised to correct and clarify the role and function of the Project on Civil Discourse,) 

“We’re building a cohort of students that are ready to really talk about why it’s hard to have conversations,” Schwartz said.

During classroom discussions on topics such as the criminalization and policing of Black communities and racial disparities, Rogers said she has experienced microaggressions from some of her white peers who lack understanding of the historical context behind these issues. As American University is a predominantly white institution with limited diversity among professors and students, she believes that some students are not sufficiently sensitive or considerate toward individuals from marginalized groups in the classroom.

“When it has to do with criminal justice or anything government or political or race related, I’m always disappointed by the outcome of our discussion, especially when I’m, like, one of the few students and or women of color in the room,” she said.

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