UI faculty petition for tougher stance against 'racial hostility'

UI faculty petition for tougher stance against 'racial hostility'

URBANA — With tensions rising over a "free speech vs. hate speech" debate on college campuses, several academic units are pressing University of Illinois administrators to take a stronger stance against words and actions they say threaten students.

Chancellor Robert Jones sent out a mass email two weeks ago responding to concerns about Chief-related "Unofficial St. Patrick's Day" T-shirts, harassment of Muslim students, anti-immigrant messages on the Quad and the defacing of an Israeli flag at a protest. He urged the campus to challenge hateful rhetoric with "speech that builds connections and shared understanding."

But five ethnic studies departments said the statement didn't go far enough to denounce the behaviors.

Faculty from African American Studies, American Indian studies, Asian American Studies, Gender and Women's Studies, and Latina/Latino Studies presented Jones with a petition Monday on "Racism and 'Free Speech.'"

It said his email was "insufficient at best" and condoned a "climate of racial hostility and demonization" in which Muslims, immigrants and undocumented students feel threatened, noting a rise in intimidation and violence nationwide, including attacks on Jewish cemeteries and mosques.

The petition cited messages scrawled in chalk on the Quad such as "Build the Wall," "Stop Supporting, Start Deporting," "Shariah [sic] Free Zone" and "Imagine an Immigrant Free America."

When other students caught the "chalkers" on video, the perpetrators threatened to report undocumented students to the police, it said.

On Tuesday, a blue swastika was also found on an exterior wall of the English Building, though it was quickly removed.

"The refusal on the part of the University of Illinois to denounce even the content of the messages or the threats themselves only emboldens students to continue these and related acts of intimidation, safe in the knowledge that the University will do little to protect students from harm; furthermore, the administration's approach has made some students more vulnerable than others," the petition said.

Jones: Claim 'offensive'

At Monday's campus Senate meeting, Jones acknowledged that his original message fell short of communicating the university's "core values."

"There were some things that we didn't say, we didn't express as forcefully as we should," he said. "We need to speak clearly about those issues and not condone speech that is divisive and demeaning and speech that is threatening to anyone who is a member of this community."

He also promised to revisit the UI's policy on "chalking" and other provisions in the student Code of Conduct to ensure "we are more explicitly addressing the source of the behavior we've seen over the last several months."

And he said the campus is already trying to help students, faculty and staff trying to navigate new restrictions on immigration and citizenship.

But the chancellor took exception to the petition's suggestion that the university's approach represented a tolerance for "xenophobia, racism, as well as white supremacy, as forms of free speech."

He said he left his research work 38 years ago for an administrative career to help the University of Minnesota strengthen its diversity programs and has devoted many years to that work.

"I take that comment to be offensive. It's not the way as a university community we need to talk to each other," he said.

Jones also said mass emails alone won't resolve these divisive issues.

He recently commissioned a review of the UI's diversity programs to determine how they could be more effective, and he wants to start a campus dialogue on the broader issue of how people can communicate better "during perhaps one of the most difficult times in our history."

"How do we better help each other understand our individual and collective responsibility to address issues of racism, offensive language, culturally demeaning actions and speech?" he said.

Free vs. hate speech

Current UI policy places no restrictions on the content of messages chalked on the Quad. Legally, it can only restrict the time, place and manner of the messages, said spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

For instance, groups can chalk messages on the sidewalk but not buildings, planters, fountains, benches, signs, bus stops, light posts or trees, among others. Voice-amplification equipment for protests can only be used over the noon hour, so it doesn't interfere with classes. And any picketing has to be done outdoors.

Kaler said Jones wants to review policies at other universities "with a fresh set of eyes" to see if there are any best practices the UI might adopt.

The faculty petition argued that there's a difference between free speech and "hate speech," citing a letter written by faculty at Cal-Berkeley, where violent protests stopped a controversial Breitbart columnist from speaking last month. It defined hate speech as "incitement, harassment, and defamation" that publicly targets individuals and creates conditions for "concrete harm ... through defamatory and harassing actions."

"They need to say that there is a difference between protected speech and speech that is going to incite violence," said one of the petition's authors, Latina/o studies Professor Rolando Romero. "For us, the students feel threatened, and it's not academic anymore."

A son's scary story

The issue is personal to him. His son, 31, was attacked by an unknown college-age man at an outdoor concert last July at the UI Research Park. Romero's son was wearing a mock Trump hat that read, "Make America Mexico Again," a reference to the fact that some Western and Southern states belonged to Mexico until 1848.

According to UI Police, the man stole the hat from the victim's head and ran away. When the victim chased him, the man threw the hat on the ground, tackled the victim and began punching him.

Romero said a nearby man and his two children pulled the attacker off his son. The man then jumped on his bike and rode away. UI Police have been unable to identify him, according to spokesman Patrick Wade.

Romero said his son is a "townie" who grew up in Champaign-Urbana, went to Leal School and graduated from the UI.

"That's why it was completely random," he said. "We're not talking about anybody's free speech here. We're talking about somebody actually beating my son."

The petition asked the UI to condemn speech that violates the campus code on discrimination and harassment; support vulnerable students; create legal resources for undocumented students; hire faculty in immigration and tribal law; commit additional resources for ethnic studies units, which educate students about cultural differences; stop production of all Chief Illiniwek merchandise; name a new campus mascot as soon as possible; and oppose hate speech under the Trump administration.

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rsp wrote on March 09, 2017 at 10:03 am

stop production of all Chief Illiniwek merchandise

Yes! Drop the copyright! I want to use it to make money. I have all these ideas for things I could sell online. Just wait till the glow-in-the-dark condoms come out, every frat house will want them! That's what I'm waiting for, the UI to give up the trademark. So many ideas.

Notsoaveragejoe wrote on March 09, 2017 at 2:03 pm

A clear liberal agenda - you're entilted to "free speech" as long as it conforms to our very narrow box and definition. The academic units mentioned are no doubt already sensitive and quick to decry "xenophobia, white male priviliege, hate speech..." These disciplines, generally speaking, are often filled by individuals who use their positions and classrooms as a stage to indoctrinate students of their agenda. And their approach to discussing racism is often skewed to appear as something that only white people, and particularly males, are capable of inflicting on others. 

A new dialogue is necessary and ridiculous required trainings on "microaggressions" probably won't produce any lasting change. And if the University is concerned about hate, perhaps they should extend their inquiry a bit further about the moderate number of crimes and assaults that are disproportionately led by young black males against international and white students.

OldIlliniFan wrote on March 09, 2017 at 1:03 pm

Priorities!   Let's petition to State government to get a Budget.

CommonSenseless wrote on March 09, 2017 at 3:03 pm

Salaita wants a particular ethnic group of people to go "missing", and some want a group to stop crossing a border illegally by advocating for a wall and deportation.  One is a hero of acedemic free speech to the leftists, the other is reprehensible hate speech.  #DoubleStandard