Even the most casual observer has to now question what is happening on our campuses. Let’s take the University of Cincinnati, first. Recently, the Irate8 (a group of black students and their faculty supporters who have made a number of demands of the university) went irate. It seems that an anonymous individual posted some rather off-color comments about the Irate8 on Yik Yak.
Like clockwork, the group quickly claimed that UC wasn’t safe for minorities, condemned the statements as racist, and dubbed one Yak the “lynching memo” because the poster stated that he “wasn’t sure he had enough rope for all of the Irate8."
Their supporters quickly took to Twitter and other social media sites to chastise UC for the alleged racism. Even the head of the student government sent out an email stating his disdain.
President Ono then sent out an email to the university condemning the anonymous Yik Yak statements and calling for a criminal investigation. Yes, a criminal investigation.
Let me be clear: I found the comments to be about what you might expect to be found on an anonymous social media site. Similar to comments found online in various other settings, such as the Cincinnati Enquirer, USA Today, and the Huffington Post, few would argue they were intellectually penetrating. They were, well, ignorant.
None of this stopped the Cincinnati Enquirer from posting a story on the front page of the newspaper about the posts and about Ono’s reaction. Here is the Enquirer story:
Fast forward a few days and we find out through Public Safety that the anonymous Yik Yaker was found and investigated. How, you may ask, did UC find the identity of the anonymous Yik Yaker? Under the direction of president Ono, public safety asked for and was granted a warrant. Yes, they got a judge to give them a warrant simply to find out who made the comments.
Let’s think about this. The comments were stupid but were they criminal? Did they rise to the level of a threat? Did they justify a criminal investigation? Was it reasonable to believe that the “rope” comment constituted a direct and immediate threat against the group?
Clearly, Ono and public safety have an obligation to keep students safe and direct threats made on social media sites are fair game for criminal investigations. However, in this instance the bar was set remarkably low--so low in fact that many types of comments now qualify to be criminally investigated by UC.
President Ono is very popular amongst students and he is a talented public figure. He is also in a difficult spot. The shooting of Mr. DuBose by a UC police officer empowered groups like the Irate8 to criticize UC. Thus, almost anything Ono says or does is scrutinized. I’m empathetic with his situation.
Against this backdrop, however, Ono ordered UC’s police department to investigate these Yaks. And investigate they did. This may not seem like an event that is all that important but in actually it is very important. A college president can now order a criminal investigation into speech he finds offensive and a campus police department will abide. This is an incredible amount of power--power most CEO’s don’t have, power most politicians don’t have, and power you and I don’t have.
Imagine if a mayor ordered the local police department to investigate rude comments about her political party....would you think this was an abuse of power? What if the President of the U.S. ordered the FBI to investigate comments made on social media sites disparaging his favorite political contributors? Would you support his actions?
What’s next? Are all social media posts now in the crosshairs of UC? Shall we track down and investigate comments made by the Irate8 and their faculty supporters? After all, someone out there may find their comments offensive if not threatening?
I do not support the comments made the the Yaker but I find it hard to believe they could have been taken seriously as a threat. And I now fear that the force of UC can and will be used in the future to quell free speech. This is, at least to me, far more dangerous than an anonymous post on a social media site few even knew about until Ono publicized it on his campus email.
So, what did they find? The comments were “a joke” and were posted--are you ready for this--by a black UC student. Yes, the “racist” comments that generated the front page Enquirer story, that earned widespread condemnation as racist, and that were deemed the equivalent to lynching, were made by a black UC student.
You could almost feel the wind let out of the sails of everyone involved. The assumption, of course, was that the comments were posted by a white person--a strange form of racial profiling I guess. Had the investigation revealed that a white person made the comments, you can bet that all hell would have broke lose and that they would have been used as evidence of prolific racism. Instead, they just went away.
Even the Enquirer showed no interest in following up on the story once the offender had been located and his race known. Here is the non-front page story:
I emailed the reporter and asked what he thought about the 1st Amendment issues involved in this episode. I received no response. Also, you will see that the story is much shorter, less inflammatory, and given less priority. I do not wonder why.
This is what I find so troubling: These actions threaten free speech on campus and they give the administration an incredible amount of power to go after people. Yet not a word has been spoken, at least to my knowledge, from anyone on campus who you might think would be concerned about the 1st Amendment. Not the law school, not our political science program, not our communications or journalism programs..........nada.
I support the right of the Irate8 to make their demands, to demonstrate, and to organize. I also support the right of the UC student who made these foolish comments to be, well, foolish. If you support free speech, you are often in the position of defending comments that are undesirable, brutish, and provocative.
Hamilton country prosecutor--Joe Deters--found that no law had been broken. I’m sure the very smart people at UC already knew this would be the outcome.
John Paul Wright and Matt DeLisi
Professors of Crime and Criminology