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Swastikas and nooses: campus hate speech or free speech? – by Deborah Levine

Originally published in The Chattanooga Times Free Press

Never heard of UHBIOC? Think again. The initials stand for Uncivil, Hate and Bias Incidents on Campus (UHBIOC) and rarely a week goes by without an incident on campuses. CNN reported 5 incidents in just one week with swastikas and nooses on campuses in Georgia, Wisconsin, Alabama, New York, and Iowa. Now the big question for colleges is whether swastikas and nooses legally represents hate speech or free speech.

That’s what I was asked in a recent television interview. It’s a good question when you consider that a White nationalist group just sued Tennessee successfully to make taxpayers foot the bill for their conference’s security. Citing the First Amendment, a judge gave them the thumbs up. How will this ruling affect campuses? Their predicament is described by the American Council on Education: “Caught in the crosshairs are college and university leaders, who want to promote robust discourse in their communities, but do not want to negatively affect the student experience or compromise the learning environment.”

Readers of my column know that it’s impossible for me to view swastikas as freedom of speech. They symbolize White supremacy in a Nazi context that led to mass annihilation. Does that make me one of those radicals that Tennessee Senator Kerry Roberts refers to when he says colleges are ‘liberal breeding grounds’? Roberts calls for the U.S. to ‘get rid of’ higher education. Colleges harbor liberals whom he characterizes as, “Far left, I mean you’ve got all of these ‘intersectionalities’ and ‘white supremacy’ and ‘oppressive this’ and every buzzword in the liberal lexicon”.

Ironically, Roberts doesn’t mention campus swastikas or nooses. Nor does Campus Hate Watch whose mission is to expose university employees who discriminate against conservative student’s first amendment rights in the classroom. Nor does the White House when it proposes offsetting campus anti-Semitism by making Judaism a nationality. Will the administration ignore how that plays directly into white nationalist talking points of Jews as un-American with dual loyalties, further fanning the flames of hate? Or will the response be the usual mind-numbing silence and claims that it’s actually Trump who’s the object of hate.

Don’t bury swastikas and nooses in partisan politics. They symbolize hate that’s bone deep and threats of ungodly violence. In his book, Keepin’ it Real, Dr. Elwood Watson describes a scene on his campus at East Tennessee State University when a White college student decided to provoke a group of Black Lives Matter supporters. The student was “bare-footed, dressed up as a gorilla, carrying a Confederate flag, taunting protesters with bananas, ropes, and nooses.”

Watson commended the Black Lives Matter protesters for keeping their cool. But we need to ask why are the so many who support this student and are motivated to do the same outrageous behavior? Watson quoted like-minded social network groups that denounce Black Lives Matter as a hate group and claim that “Blacks attack Whites all the time”.  Watson reports that in his trial, the student was cleared of the charge of Civil Rights intimidation. Might that have contributed to the appearance of a swastika on UTC’s campus during Black History Month?

That court ruling not only helped establish a new normal, but demonstrated that students and taxpayers will fund the consequences. I have great sympathy for campus faculty trying to navigate in this environment. But silence over swastikas and nooses equals their justification and encourages expectations of taxpayer support, not only on campuses, but in society at large. We mustn’t allow mainstreaming hate. I hope that campuses can show us how that’s done.

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