Some students and faculty who say they’ve been targeted by online harassment and threats are calling for a more forceful response from the university. The university also is keeping an eye on a speculation that there will be a pro-Donald Trump demonstration on campus Monday.
More than a week after a Breitbart News editor’s speech was punctuated by violence on the University of Washington’s Red Square, students and faculty say the campus is on edge because of the perception that hate speech is on the rise.
Some students and faculty who say they’ve been targeted by online harassment and threats are calling for a more forceful response from the university. The university also is keeping an eye on a possible pro-Donald Trump demonstration on campus Monday.
UW spokesman Norm Arkans acknowledged that Trump’s election seems to have resulted in a wave of hate speech, and the university is trying to find ways to support people who are being harassed.
“We want them to feel as though we’ve got their backs,” he said. “I think we need to figure out more ways to do that.”
Displays of bias
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Why does one of the country’s most liberal campuses appear to be suddenly experiencing a rash of prejudice?
The switch in people’s willingness to openly express bias and prejudice is real nationwide, and it’s wrapped up in the concept of social norms, which changed after Donald Trump was elected to the highest office, an expert on prejudice says.
“Literally overnight” after Trump won the election Nov. 8 it became acceptable to disparage Muslims, Mexican immigrants, women and other minority groups, said Chris Crandall, a University of Kansas psychology professor who grew up in Seattle and received his undergraduate degree at the University of Washington.
Crandall said his research shows that President Trump’s election didn’t create new biases. But his win has unleased the expression of those prejudices.
People who felt biases against others suddenly decided it was all right to say them out loud, Crandall said. That feeling extended to people on all sides of the political spectrum, including Democrats, who earlier felt it was wrong to express bias, but now believe it’s acceptable, his research shows.
In his Jan. 20 speech at the UW, Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos — who’s been banned on Twitter — mocked liberals, Democrats, feminists, gays and lesbians, to his audience’s delight. He concluded by saying that Americans are raising a generation of children who can’t handle words used against them, that cyberbullying is not the same as real bullying, and that people should ignore things they find offensive.
“If someone is speaking on campus you don’t like, don’t attend the lecture,” he said.
Students who had opposed Yiannopoulos’s appearance on campus argued that the talk should be canceled out of concern for student safety. On the night of the speech, protesters who tried to shut down the event clashed with people standing in line to hear Yiannopoulos, and one man was shot in the stomach.
UW President Ana Mari Cauce defended Yiannopoulos’ right to speak, saying to do so meant upholding the public university’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas and expression. But she also condemned the violence.
Late this week, a Facebook group calling itself “UW Wall Building Association” advertised a pro-Trump campus demonstration that is to take place Monday on Red Square. The UW College Republicans, who hosted Yiannopoulos, say the event is fake, placed online to bait students and the media.
But the Latinx Student Law Association, which believes UW students are behind the post, called on the university to intervene because the event constitutes harassment, which would violate the UW’s Student Code of Conduct.
“We want the administration to really address this seriously now, especially because of heightened sense of fear and anxiety” among all students, especially undocumented students, said Michelle Saucedo, a member of the Latinx Law Student Association, who helped draft a letter calling on the university to take action.
“We’re not trying to limit anyone’s free speech,” Saucedo said. “We’re calling on the university to stand by the Student Code of Conduct, and investigate” to find out who is behind the post.
The UW Wall group is violating the code, she said, by targeting a specific group based on race, national origin and citizenship. The post also calls for students to bring bricks, which could be used as weapons. The group has created a “hostile and offensive environment in which undocumented and Latinx UW students feel unsafe and unwelcome,” the letter reads. Saucedo said about 1,500 students, faculty, staff and community members have signed it.
UW officials say they don’t know if the event is real or fake, but they plan to have security in place on Monday. In response to the rally, Denzil Suite, the UW’s vice president for student life, released a statement Friday saying that anyone who commits criminal acts will be arrested.
Some online threats in recent weeks have extended to individual students and faculty.
Alan-Michael Weatherford, a graduate student who teaches a queer-studies course, said he was harassed online after the Yiannopoulos event, including posts that have included slurs, threats and the release of his personal information.
“Let me just say very clearly that having an entire internet presence solely dedicated to finding, contacting and harassing with the promise of potentially harming you is petrifying,” he wrote in a guest editorial to the UW Daily.
In an interview, Weatherford said the university is “barely responding, if at all,” and has told him he needs to take care of it himself. He said he thinks other students have also been targeted with harassment.
Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical astrophysicist at the UW, said she, too, has been targeted by hate speech, including hate mail and threats, because of her race and religion. She is African American and Jewish.
“I am a firm believer in free speech, but it goes both ways, and I’ve been disappointed that while Milo has been vocal about his views, there’s been relative silence from the administration,” she said.
Crandall, the psychology professor, said it’s wrong to pretend that words can’t incite people to violence, even if free speech is protected by the Constitution.
In arguing that speech is not the same as physical violence, Yiannopoulos is “making the argument that Hitler’s speeches had no effect, and I think that’s a foolish argument,” Crandall said. “What people say really does matter.”
Crandall noted that during his election rallies, Trump told his audience to beat up protesters. And some protesters did get assaulted.
He advised people who were upset about the increase in expression of prejudice to be open to what others have to say.
“Be open to dissent, and be open to dissenting. And we all need to keep doing our jobs, as a reporter, a researcher, a university teacher, the cop on the beat working with the prosecutors to ensure equal justice, the politicians in town making good policy, the parents of students ensuring that the schools and the school board are open to helping all children.”
Said Crandall: “There’s no shortage of activities — and activity is much better than sitting in a dark and quiet room with a computer, being enraged and feeling futile.”