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A year after Charlottesville, UNR continues to grapple with hate speech, free speech and its campus climate

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
Students at UNR's Joe Crowley Student Union

Last October someone painted a swastika in a university arts building. This October someone carved one into a university residence hall.

These and other high-profile incidents at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) over the past two years, including a student marching at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville in 2017, have forced students and faculty to grapple with issues of free speech, hate speech, political freedom and inclusion.

The incidents at UNR are a reflection of a growing trend across the country. On Nov. 13, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported an increase in hate crimes for the third consecutive year. On Tuesday, NPR reported that a swastika was painted on a Duke University memorial for the victims of last month’s fatal synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. In Reno, the NAACP noted an uptick in hate speech around the election, with the defacing of a campaign sign and anti-Semitic flyers placed at a Jewish temple.

On a tight-knit university campus, news travels fast and these shocking incidents can feel acute, standing in sharp contrast to an environment that is meant to foster a free space for learning.

“Every university in the past few years is having to grapple more with these issues,” said Jerome Maese, director for residential life at UNR. “We’re a reflection of society and culture, and look what’s going on politically right now. If you look at what’s going on in the United States, as a culture and a society, we’re dealing with a lot. And issues are coming out.”

On Oct. 27, the gunman who opened fire in a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh killed 11 worshipers and injured several police officers. That same day, a swastika was found carved into a UNR residence hall with a pencil, the Nevada Sagebrush reported. The incident occurred almost exactly a year after swastikas were spray-painted onto the graffiti staircase in the fine arts building — a staircase intended to encourage expression and on which students are invited to draw or paint.

Last month’s swastika carving and the recent discovery of a fraternity document containing song lyrics with imagery of violent sexual acts has renewed an ongoing conversation at UNR over campus climate and inclusion.

“Incidents of anti-semitism, racism, sexism and misogyny are all on the uptick [nationally],” Melanie Duckworth, the associate dean of diversity and inclusion, said last week. “I think there have been a number of very unfortunate events that have directly impacted our campus in a manner that made all of us extremely aware of the importance of every kind of effort [the administration] could make to make our campus a diverse one but also a very inclusive one. I think the campus climate right now could be described as different for different constituencies.”

Student leaders at UNR are paying attention.

Hannah Jackson, UNR’s student body president, said a town hall intended to address some of these concerns earlier this month drew about 150 attendees. She said several comments were about anti-Semitism, but others centered on the Charlottesville rally and recent on-campus police stops.

“There’s a lot going on,” she said. “But I feel like people are really motivated to work together.”

Jackson, who has been in student government leadership for three years, said the organization is looking to partner with the Anti-Defamation League and other campus Jewish groups to co-host an event at UNR. But the acts of hate — like elsewhere in the country — have not been limited to instances of anti-Semitism.

Hannah Jackson, president of the Associated Students of the University of Nevada, on Nov. 14, 2018 (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent).

The Associated Students of the University of Nevada, the organization Jackson leads, has been attempting to call public attention to some of these issues for years with town halls and events. For example, during homecoming last year, the group hosted an event called “Protect our Pack,” where Jackson said a wide range of topics were discussed, from bystander intervention to sexual assault and domestic violence.

Jackson and those who are focusing on the issues have said one of the best ways to address things is simply to talk about them — starting with making sure students are aware of disturbing events when they occur on campus.

On a late night in October, that was also one of the thoughts that ran through Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez’s head shortly after she sat down at a computer at UNR’s Knowledge Center to finish her homework.

When she turned on the machine, she was caught off guard.

“At first I was kind of confused because I didn’t really know what I was looking at,” she said.

On the computer screen was a logged-in Facebook account for fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon that included a PDF document. Rodriguez, a senior majoring in journalism and Spanish, clicked on it. What she found — songs lyrics portraying violent assaults with explicit sexual imagery — surprised her, she said in an interview with The Nevada Independent.

As the Nevada Sagebrush later reported, one song, “Apollo’s Raiders,” included the lyric: “Circumcise a Sig Ep with a jagged piece of glass / Ram a rusty bayonet up a Phi Delt’s ass.”

Orozco Rodriguez said when she first found the document, she wasn’t sure what to do. She turned to several professors who advised her, as a student journalist, to write a story. But they all also warned her that she could face backlash from the Greek community.

“All of them encouraged doing the story, but cautioned me on the consequences,” she said.

The Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity house on Nov. 15, 2018 (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent).

A few weeks later, on Nov. 6, the Nevada Sagebrush published a story co-authored by Orozco Rodriguez. She said most of the responses she has received have been positive — and from other women who thanked her for writing the article. The other 1 percent, she said, have been from those who support the Greek system or thought the Sagebrush story and how the document was uncovered constituted an invasion of privacy.

The president of Tau Kappa Epsilon did not respond to an email request for an interview. UNR has opened an investigation into the fraternity, which is on an interim suspension for this incident. The national office for Tau Kappa Epsilon has also placed the UNR chapter on an interim suspension.

Madeline Purdue, the editor of the Nevada Sagebrush, also said reactions to the story have been “mixed.” But she said it was newsworthy and as journalists, their job was not to focus on the reaction.

“First and foremost, our absolute goal always is to inform everybody,” Purdue said. “If people want to have a conversation on it, that’s great… It’s not our job to instigate.”

Purdue said she and her staff have watched conversations on diversity and inclusion issues evolve since the last academic year.

The campus has seen protests and fierce debates over free speech after a UNR senior, Peter Cvjetanovic, was identified as the person captured in the infamous photo of angry young men holding tiki torches at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. Despite calls for his expulsion and a protest at his senior thesis presentation, Cvjetanovic graduated in May, what many saw as a test of UNR’s commitment to free speech.

There were other incidents last year, too. The campus police chief apologized last October after one of this officers dressed up as UNR graduate Colin Kaepernick, wearing a wig, black paint and a fake nose, as the Reno Gazette Journal reported. One month earlier, the police chief apologized after an officer made “inappropriate and offensive comments” to UNR graduate student and former football player Kevin McReynolds during a traffic stop, the newspaper reported.

Body camera footage from the stop showed an officer commenting on the top defensive tackle’s size: “Holy s---, I’m glad you’re not fighting, you’re big,” said the first officer. Then another officer said jokingly: “That’s why I’m like, I’m going to shoot him if this goes sideways.”

After these incidents, Purdue said “it was interesting to see whether the conversation would continue or stop.” For the most part, she said the conversation at UNR about hate speech, free speech and what to do about it has continued.

Amid an election year, the debate over free speech and hate speech has also extended into politics. Over the past week, some Twitter users have been sharing a flyer apparently posted on campus with copy that says, “If you… voted for Trump, are homophobic, are racist, don’t support Black Lives Matter, support Nazis, want to build a fu--ing wall, go kill yourself please.” Underneath the text was a Republican Party logo underneath a circle-backslash symbol. 

The university and the campus police are investigating, said Kerri Garcia, a UNR spokesperson. As of Wednesday, UNR did not have information about who posted the flyer.

Jackson, the UNR student body president, said the flyers went too far.

“We’re a community that has a bunch of diverse perspectives, and different political opinions is one of those,” she said. “And that violent and hateful message is just going too far.”

For years, UNR administrators have said they wanted to conduct a campus-wide social climate survey to get an accurate measure about how people felt on campus. With the incidents last year, that initiative has been pushed to the forefront, said Duckworth, the associate dean of diversity and inclusion.

The administration, which has hired outside consultants to help, is holding focus groups to determine what to ask and will roll out the survey next year.

Over the past few years, some have criticized the administration's response to diversity issues. For some people, they have been too quiet. For others, they have weighed the rights of free speech too heavily in their statements. For yet others, the university went too far when it supported alumnus Kaepernick when he first sat out the national anthem in 2016.

“It’s been a heavy couple of years,” said Jody Lykes, a student development coordinator at The Center, UNR’s on-campus hub for diversity programs. “I think that a lot of difficulty in dealing with the events has been our campus response, trying to figure out how to respect free speech but then understand that hate speech is taking place on our campus. Striking that balance has left some of the people who are victims of hate speech or free speech without protection.”

Lykes, a member of the Reno/Sparks NAACP who also teaches courses in UNR’s Gender, Race and Identity Program, said the best thing the university can do is notify students quickly when incidents occur.

Jody Lykes, a student development coordinator at The Center, UNR’s on-campus hub for diversity programs, on Nov. 15, 2018 (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent).

Duckworth, the associate dean, agreed that this could be a good approach going forward. She also emphasized the importance of explicitly labeling an action as racist or sexist instead of using vague euphemisms like an “objectionable symbol” or “unacceptable language” in statements.

“I definitely would support any kind of effort to make more systematic the communication of what’s going on to our entire campus community, but particularly those communities that are at more risk of harm,” said Duckworth, who is also an associate professor of psychology.

Nnedi Stephens, a senior majoring in Spanish and chemical engineering, agreed the university needs to do more to reach out to specific groups that might be affected by speech.

After the incidents last year, Stephens said she understood UNR’s responsibility to balance free speech with the consequences of that speech. But she said UNR should have done more to talk to marginalized communities.

“I personally agree that they definitely shouldn’t have expelled [Cvjetanovic] for having had these beliefs,” she said. “But at the same time, there really should have been a much more stronger effort to reach out to students of these marginalized communities and make sure they are OK, and then start… forming ways toward addressing intolerance and implicit bias and outright racism. There really wasn’t that outreach to map that way forward.”

“There’s mainly the instinct to protect the student and his free speech,” he added.

In statements, the administration has strongly denounced hate speech, but it has also acknowledged the importance of maintaining a free speech environment.

“Racism and white supremacist movements have a corrosive effect on our society,” UNR president Marc Johnson wrote in a statement after the Charlottesville rally. “These movements do not represent our values as a university. We denounce any movement that targets individuals due to the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, political beliefs, sexual orientation, ability/disability, or whether they were born in our country. As an institution, we remain firm in our commitment in denouncing all forms of bigotry and racism, which have no place in a free and equal society.”

He added, though, that a potential path forward was through promoting a free dialogue.

“Our learning environment respects the right to freely express views and debate openly in civil discourse,” Johnson said in the statement. “There will be clashes of beliefs and opinions, but they must be peaceful. As a community, we abhor violence and it has no place on our campus. If we are to come to greater understanding of each other, it will be through open, honest, non-violent discussion and exploration of all ideas. Educating ourselves on the other's point of view is the key to understanding and peaceful co-existence”

From the administration’s perspective, it can be hard to disseminate statements to the public, especially to students who are already busy and swamped with information. Maese, UNR’s director for residential life, said the administration releases many public statements but is working on sending out more immediate responses. In a time when students are bombarded with information, Maese said it can be difficult to break through the noise of social media.

The goal is “really developing a strategic plan that we not only get it out in 24 hours, but we get it out in a way that they actually know that we got it out,” Maese said. “Because we get it out. But whether or not they read it or even know we got it out, that’s what we’re struggling with.”

Maese acknowledged that it can be a struggle to balance the rights of expression with the consequences of that expression on certain groups.

“As a university, we have Charlottesville and Kaepernick,” he said. “As a university and as a nation, the most fundamental thing that we have is you have the freedom to express your beliefs. And that is a challenging one when you try to create a safe environment for everyone.”

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