UNC senior Jeff DeLuca wrote a letter hoping to spur students to vote against North Carolina’s Amendment One, which would ban same-sex marriage. He didn’t expect that a response to his letter would spark a firestorm of controversy in social media, triggering questions about the limits of free speech.
DeLuca’s letter, published April 17 in the Daily Tar Heel, urged students to “storm the campus dorms to raise awareness about early voting and the simple facts about Amendment One’s broad reach.”
“I gathered two things from your DTH letter,” Dodson wrote. “First, you are not even capable of listening to any sort of real debate on the issue about which you are concerned.”
Using crude language, Dodson then suggested that DeLuca enjoys homosexual acts.
Dodson did not respond to multiple messages requesting comment.
DeLuca posted a screenshot of the message from Dodson on his own Facebook page.
“As hate comes from individuals,” DeLuca wrote on Facebook, “we become the living embodiment of the ideas we express and James is facing and will continue to face the consequences of that reality. I don’t know who James Dodson is as a person. I do know, despite being a bully, James is part of the Carolina community and I personally forgive him for what he wrote to me.”
DeLuca said it was time someone spoke up against what he says Dodson represents.
“It was not a matter of opinions different from mine,” DeLuca said. “This was a personal attack. So I figured, you know what, we have to make an example out of him.”
Outcry in response to DeLuca’s Facebook post was immediate and explosive.
At press time, the post had been shared 73 times and “liked” 367 times. It also received 57 comments, most of which supported DeLuca:
Junior Swati Rayasam said that the incident between Dodson and DeLuca shocked her. Rayasam, editor-in-chief of LAMBDA magazine and an executive board member of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Straight Alliance, said that said she was aware that some would vote in favor of Amendment One. But she said she was appalled that a college student would send such a message.
“I was shocked the that he said that to somebody and didn’t expect this to happen, and especially shocked that he continued to post things about this in support of his own beliefs even though he had gone totally viral,” she said.
In a Facebook status message, Dodson suggested that he does not regret his message.
“I have really enjoyed the last 24 hrs. Nothing I said was at all bigoted.”
Dodson’s fraternity, the Psi Chapter of Sigma Nu, distanced itself from Dodson’s comments.
Chapter President Kyle Ancharski distributed a press release stating that Dodson does not speak for the fraternity.
“While Mr. Dodson is entitled to hold his own opinion on such matters and entitled to his right to free speech, the Psi Chapter believes his comments are not conducive to, or reflective of, the kind of civil discourse expected by excellent institutions such as the University of North Carolina and Sigma Nu Fraternity,” the release said.
A UNIVERSITY RESPONSE?
Some students said the University should respond to Dodson’s comment.
“It’s a huge issue of safety on campus,” said Rayasam, the LAMBDA magazine editor. “Having Honor Court and especially UNC involved in incidents of hate is incredibly important just because if it’s something that the University officials do not condone, by not prosecuting it, they do.”
“I feel like engaging the administration is important just to have it reported,” DeLuca said. “I have been encouraged by some people to file an Honor Court report.”
IS IT HATE SPEECH?
But because of legal strong protections for free speech, there may be little the University can do when a student sends a derogatory message to another.
The First Amendment of wholesale jerseys the Constitution provides explicit protection for speech. In some cases, courts have ruled that hateful speech is not protected by the Constitution.
From a legal standpoint, speech needs to meet specific criteria in order to be stripped of its protection, said Dean of Students Jonathan Sauls. But no single definition of hate speech exists, he said.
If speech is determined to be hate speech, said Sauls, it’s because it’s speech that is equivalent to an action, such as a plausible threat.
“Naturally, that should be probably a fairly limited amount of speech,” Sauls said. “We can be harmed, offended, regard something as wholly uncivil and insensitive, that doesn’t necessarily mean that my subjective experience of that speech makes it unprotected.”
Sauls, who received a law degree from UNC School of Law in 1997, said that in his view, the point at which speech enters illegal territory is when it becomes so disruptive that the community in general thinks the speech can’t be tolerated.
“You have a right to say offensive things. But when that crosses over and creates a hostile environment that’s so severe or pervasive that it essentially disrupts an individual or group of individual’s ability to draw the same right and privileges as anybody else, that’s the point at which you cross over,” Sauls said.
“I have no problem acknowledging that it seems on its face to be absolutely repugnant speech, just, not sensitive, not civil, and those are understatements,” Sauls said of Dodson’s language. Even so, he said he doesn’t feel comfortable labeling Dodson’s comments as meeting hate speech criteria without judicial review.
VANDALISM AT N.C. STATE
After someone painted racial slurs in the Free Expression Tunnel at North Carolina State University, former UNC President Erskine Bowles appointed a commission to identify whether the University system should take a more stringent approach to regulating hateful speech and conduct.
In its March 31, 2009 review, the commission said that students should hold themselves to high codes of conduct, that the University system had a strong commitment to free speech, and that the UNC Board of Governors should not define “hate.”
“Student codes should include language that defines the conduct that is illegal based upon specific statutes or laws, rather than a prohibition of ‘hate crimes’ per se,” the task force wrote. “We discourage the use of the term ‘hate crimes’ in a policy.”
Katherine Lewis Parker, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and one of the task force’s advisors, said that she urged the committee to leave out the term.
“We weighed in because we were concerned about the possibility that they would ban hate speech,” she said. “Our concern is, hate speech, while we don’t like it, is nevertheless protected by the First Amendment.”
In a letter to the task force, Parker explained that hate speech codes “only treat the symptom. The problem itself is bigotry.”
In its final draft, the Board of Governors listed eight criteria for “addressing cheap jerseys specific student conduct that could lead to disciplinary action” that all 16 schools in the system now reference in campus disciplinary matters.
Currently, policy at the University is operating under the provisions of an interim code consistent with newer federal regulations that extends into matters of speech as they involve protected classes of people.
Right now, the policy grants the University the right to send special cases to an emergency committee. The University will likely implement a more comprehensive policy to respond to harassment in August, Sauls said.
Student Attorney General Amanda Claire Grayson wrote in an email that hate speech might violate the University’s policy on student conduct in sections of the Honor Code that deal with harassment or intimidation and threats.
It is important to understand, Sauls said, that the Honor System would not define any speech as hate speech, but would define speech as being in violation The of the Honor Code.
And while the University cannot issue a punishment outside of the Honor System, the administration can take other action
“Can we have a conversation with a student? Sure,” Sauls said. “Can we have an educational moment of some description? Sure. But neither the Dean of Students Office nor anyone else can replace the campus disciplinary process.”
DeLuca said that he had been in contact with Dean Blackburn, assistant dean of students and community relations, and that the University was working with him to outline a plan for Dodson.
“Because he didn’t make a threat, there’s not much the Dean of Students Office can do,” DeLuca Cross-overs said. “It’s more of an insult.”
DeLuca said that some of the things he and Blackburn have been discussing include compelling Dodson to attend Safe Zone training, a diversity program that supports students of every sexual orientation.
DeLuca said in an email that he does not plan to seek Honor Court review of Dodson’s message, and instead is planning on letting the administration handle it.
“I don’t have time to go through an Honor Court proceeding this close to exams,” DeLuca wrote. “This is already taking up a too much of my time.”
But Michael Waltman, a professor of communication studies who researches hate speech, said the conversation that Dodson’s message sparked may be a better response than any punishment the University could hand out.
“Most of us who study hate cheap nfl jerseys speech and care about free speech and care about civil liberties believe that the best answer to hate speech is more speech,” he said. “It wholesale jerseys China is people responding.”