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Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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Given the obvious racially hostile symbolism of a noose, the University of Illinois student who allegedly displayed one in an dormitory elevator ought to be fitted with a dunce cap made especially for him.

No one with both feet on the ground and even a slight acquaintance with this country’s sorry racial history can credibly claim ignorance as to its meaning.

So Andrew Smith, the high-achieving math major, has some explaining to do. Perhaps that’s why he is, understandably, no longer enrolled at the university after he was identified as the student who allegedly displayed the noose in an Allen Hall elevator.

After all, if he were still here, Smith would be the new Public Enemy No. 1 on campus.

But whatever label can be attached to Smith, calling him a criminal is a statutory stretch. So is charging him with a felony offense potentially punishable by a stint in the joint.

It’s one thing for hyper-politicized campus types and enabling administrators to jump off the deep end over an offensive display. But it’s quite another when our elected officials, in this case Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz, go over the edge with them and do so in a way that plays to the crowd.

For those who don’t recognize the details of the incident, at 1 a.m. Sept. 1, Allen Hall staffers found the noose in an elevator. Now Smith’s name is synonymous with virulent racism on campus, where people are lining up to denounce what they describe as a “rising tide” of racial animus.

That’s not all, either.

In response to the incident, campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler announced that “housing professionals are available to aid students in accessing support services” for the psychological damage they have suffered as a consequence of what has occurred.

If Smith was looking to make a big splash — he told police he wasn’t — he succeeded beyond his wildest imagination, to the point of being charged criminally with a misdemeanor, disorderly conduct, and a felony, hate crime.

That is the handiwork of Rietz, the longtime state’s attorney. The charges she filed against Smith bear scrutiny because they don’t appear to fit the alleged crime.

For starters, there’s disorderly conduct. According to the statutory definition, a person commits disorderly conduct when he engages in “any act in such unreasonable manner as to alarm or disturb another and provoke a breach of the peace.”

It’s usually an “in-your-face” crime, where one individual confronts another.

In this case, the individual with Smith when he fashioned the noose wasn’t unduly concerned. There was no breach of the peace, and Smith explained, disingenuously perhaps, that it was a prank.

The disorderly conduct charges play into the hate-crime charge because Rietz is using it to bootstrap Smith’s offense into a felony. If there was no disorderly conduct, there was no hate crime.

A hate crime is defined as when, for racially motivated reasons, a person commits any one of a number of offenses, including disorderly conduct.

Here’s another query — who was the victim of the hate crime?

Most important, how will Rietz prove the facts that make up both offenses beyond a reasonable doubt?

She won’t, because this case is almost certain not to go to trial. Her office and Smith’s lawyer will work out something after all the fuss is over.

Smith told police he fashioned the noose in response to tales of “ghosts in campus buildings.” He said it was mere happenstance that he fashioned a noose.

That explanation strains credulity, but it’s not impossible. After all, college students are not known for their maturity and good judgment.

Whatever Smith was up to, it blew up in his face in a way he never imagined.

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.