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.