A student's repeated use of a racial slur on social media has ignited a debate at Florida Atlantic University about whether students have a right to racist speech.
Some Black students called for student Ryan Richards, 19, to be expelled after he said the "n-word" in a video posted to social media last week. While FAU officials have condemned the comment, they haven't disciplined Richards, citing his First Amendment rights.
The debate highlights the difficulty that public institutions face in combating bigotry while observing individual freedoms at a time when racial tension has intensified nationwide.
FAU is one of many universities grappling with the question, which has become more difficult in recent months after the May killing of George Floydby a Minneapolis police officer fueled a national dialog about race.
In the five-second video, Richards used the derogatory term five times, followed by, "Guess what? White people created it, b — _ ." He ended with another expletive.
The video, originally posted to the social media site Snapchat, received wide attention after FAU's Black student newspaper, the Paradigm Press, posted the video and a chat about the video between Richards and another student.
"I already talked to the dean. I'm good," Richards said, according to an Instagram chat posted on the Paradigm's website. "Freedom of speech is one Hell of a right."
Richards could not be reached for comment, despite requests through FAU and a direct message to his Instagram account.
During an appearance at an Oct. 30 online forum hosted by his FAU apartment complex, Innovation Village, Richards apologized for the comments and also said he'd received death threats, said Paradigm Press Editor Kennedy McKinney, who attended the meeting.
"He started to apologize, but then he tried to change the narrative," said McKinney, who is also president of the Black Student Union, an FAU student group. "He said the backlash he's receiving is 10 times worse than what Black students are dealing with, because he's getting threats and hate messages."
Graduate student Abby Duncanson said she complained to FAU's dean of students, Aaron Hackman, after reading the racist comments on social media.
"At the very least, he should be removed from campus. He should be expelled," Duncanson told The South Florida Sun Sentinel. "If someone uses that kind of language, holds those kind of beliefs, it makes it dangerous for other Black or brown students."
FAU President John Kelly issued a statement Tuesday condemning racism and pledging to continue efforts to create an inclusive atmosphere on campus. But the university didn't discipline Richards.
"We understand that when statements like those reflected in the video circulate on social media, the harmful impact reaches far and wide," FAU spokesman Joshua Glanzer said in a statement to the Sun Sentinel.
That's the right call, according to Adam B. Steinbaugh, a director with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that seeks to protect free speech on college campuses.
"The First Amendment means that government officials can't make particular words unlawful to say, even if others find it deeply offensive," Steinbaugh said. "That doesn't shield the student from criticism or condemnation for his choices, but it does mean that the university can't punish him."
McKinney, the editor of the Paradigm, disagrees, saying a university doesn't have to tolerate racist comments.
"When it turns into hate speech and when it's inciting violence, that's where I would draw the line," she said.
Other universities have dealt with similar issues. Last week, a female student at Florida International University in Miami danced suggestively while saying the "n-word." Mark Rosenberg, president of Florida International University in Miami, recorded a statement last week condemning the comments.
"My expectation is that the student will reflect on the message, that the student will come to understand that the hate and ignorance expressed in the message undermine all that ought to bring us together," Rosenberg said.
An FIU spokeswoman would not confirm the student's identity or say whether she was disciplined, citing student privacy laws.
Several private schools, including Xavier University in Cincinnati and Marquette University in Milwaukee this year rescinded the admissions of students who made racist social media posts. Last year, Harvard University revoked the admission of a Parkland student after racist comments were revealed.
Private universities don't face the same First Amendment restrictions as taxpayer-funded institutions, experts say. And public universities may have leeway to reject students who make racist comments since admissions are often based on "subjective and holistic evaluations," Steinbaugh said.
"But it may not be a good idea to rescind admission because of expression, especially when that expression is borne of ignorance and not malice," he said. "Universities are in the practice of educating people, which is the best way to address ignorance."
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