Commenters not likely to be punished

Commenters not likely to be punished

Can University of Illinois students be disciplined for hurling racist and sexist insults at their chancellor on social media?

Not usually, according to Brian Farber, director of the Office of Student Conflict Resolution.

Comments on Twitter or other social media can be addressed by the student discipline system "only if they rise to the level of threats or violence or directly harassing behavior," he said Monday.


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Farber stressed that he hadn't reviewed all of the comments about Chancellor Phyllis Wise's decision to hold classes Monday, but the right to free expression definitely applies.

"There are a lot of people who have said some things that were horribly offensive to me, but they're constitutionally protected to do so," Farber said. "Unless they're making threats that make us concerned about safety, that is their right to do so."

The university has an obligation to ensure that employees feel safe, he said, and "I'm certain there are folks talking to the chancellor about that."

"As far as holding individuals responsible for racist, sexist comments, as distasteful as that is, that's not something a public institution can do, not in a disciplinary context," he said.

The UI's student discipline code prohibits "conduct that threatens the health or safety of any person," including "any threat or physically threatening behavior which creates a reasonable fear for a person's safety," or "behavior which is so persistent, pervasive, or severe as to deny a person's ability to participate in the university community."

Speech crosses that line when someone makes threats of violence and a reasonable person would consider it a threat, he said.

"We'll respond to any of those that rise to such a level, or investigate those that we feel might," he said.

The student code talks about the UI's goals to create an institution free of censorship but also one that does not diminish the rights of any student and protects the freedom to learn, he said.

Farber said he appreciated that the social-networking community stood up and called out the comments as "inappropriate and childish."

"This is not indicative of who we are at Illinois, what we value, or our feelings about the chancellor," he said.

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Lostinspace wrote on January 28, 2014 at 7:01 am

Don't punish them; just reveal their names.

asparagus wrote on January 28, 2014 at 9:01 am

I appreciate Mr. Farber's comments. Free speech is important. However, his assertion that this is not indicative "who we are at Illinois" is a little silly. Obviously, it is indicative of who some of us are at Illinois. More than one would like to comfortably admit, unfortunately.

itazurakko wrote on January 28, 2014 at 9:01 am

Indeed.  Tweets under the #uiuc tag can be quite cringeworthy at times.  Better yet, #unofficial...


sneezingdog wrote on January 28, 2014 at 11:01 am
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The discussion about punishment is misleading. Sanctioning these students is not the most effective way to change their behavior, and doing so would carry all the risks attendant to making the state the arbiter of what can be said. That doesn't mean there's nothing that the university can do. These students have created a public discussion about the propriety of using social media to direct racist and sexist insults at an individual. So let the discussion continue. I would urge U of I professors to take time out of their classes to discuss whether this was appropriate or not. It would be even better if the Chancellor's office organized a forum around the incident and top university administrators set out their point of view of why this behavior should be criticized. Invite the students who tweeted the insults to appear and defend their behavior. Would they come? I doubt it. There is no defense and it would be very embarrassing for them. And that's just the point. Speech, and the ideas it embodies, exist in a marketplace. Let the market reject this nonsense in a way that says loud and clear, "you are immature and offensive, so grow up!" To the students who tweeted the offensive comments: do you think you'll get away with this type of behavior in the workplace? Not only will you lose your job, depending on the circustances, you will buy your employer a lawsuit. Great stuff for your resume!

Sid Saltfork wrote on January 28, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Sadly given all of the causes in the world, the students' rants were over going to classes in the cold. 

Cancel classes on campus, and make up the days with a shortened Spring Break.  If this kind of behavior is allowed; demonstrations, and riots may happen over the food service.  OMG... what if it is really cold on the Unofficial !!!

Bulldogmojo wrote on January 28, 2014 at 12:01 pm

LMAO!! I have been working at the university for 20 years and you should hear how some of the employees spew racist and sexist garbage. It's hardly exclusive to this tiny "Rogue element" of students who decided to be rude on twitter. 

I even once had a supervisor go on a minutes long diatribe in front of several employees about how she thought gay people shouldn't be allowed into churches! Pompous religious manager creep. It runs a lot deeper and darker than this little dust up.

What do you think you are actually going to do to remedy this? Sensitivity training? Academic suspension? I'm guessing nothing really

sneezingdog wrote on January 28, 2014 at 5:01 pm
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@Bulldogmojo, you are guessing wrong. I am quite aware of the racist and sexist undercurrents at the U of I. I am an alum and attended the university between 69 and 77.   Then I lived and worked in this community between 81 and 96.  (Actually, I know quite a bit. :)   

What do I think I'll do to remedy this?  Well, what I can do. Point this nonsense out when it happens. Explain as gently as I can why it is so wrong (if someone really doesn't understand). Urge the university to teach respect and tolerance (teaching is their mission). Organize when it is appropriate. All of that was essential in the effort to dump illinwak. It's actually the link between illinwak and this incident that concerns me most. It was this type of vitriol that made it difficult to get rid of that shameful image.

There is a nice irony here that I am also trying to leverage. The students that tweeted have created a discussion about the ethical use of social media, and that discussion is focused on their own crude behavior. Ha! I pity them really. If I were a prospective employer, I sure as hell would not hire any of them. At best they are whiners!  At worst, they are dangerously insensitive to the effects of what they say. They don't see the moral issue. I hope they know that many employers check social media to learn about applicants.  No doubt that's a trend that will continue. So, let's have a public discussion about this. Exapnd the record. Put the facts out for all to see!

I also know it is difficult and sometimes dangerous to call out racist/sexist/homophobic behavior when you see it. But try to find your courage. There are a lot of people around to help.

Bulldogmojo wrote on January 29, 2014 at 8:01 am

Well since social media is nothing but pointing things out (and I do mean nothing but)...How's that working out for you?