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Students, Others Forwarding Racist Online Posts For Public Shaming, Real-World Consequences

Lauren Witte
Fresh Take Florida
Clay Calvert stands outside in Weimer Hall on Monday, June 8, 2020. Calvert is a professor of law at the University of Florida and a Brechner Eminent Scholar in Mass Communication.

Students and others across the U.S. are publicly shaming young authors of racist social media posts, and in some cases forwarding copies to college admissions offices, athletic coaches and employers to press them for punishment.

The effort is intended to impose real-world consequences for hateful speech online. It is complicated by free-speech legal protections and questions about holding youths accountable for terrible judgment in what they say or write, even as minors, or when they share such posts among small groups of friends.

The phenomenon – derided by conservatives as a form of “cancel culture,” or shaming anyone who expresses a controversial or unpopular opinion – already has led to universities withdrawing admission offers or discouraging prospective students from attending, loss of at least one college athletic scholarship and job firings.

So far:

  • Louisiana State University said this week that a white student who appeared in a brief video online saying, “I hate n-----” will not be attending the school, but it did not say whether it revoked his admissions offer or the student withdrew his application.
  • The city of Gainesville last week revokedan employment offer to a University of Florida former student government official who wrote racist comments in private messages in 2015 when he was in high school. The student apologized in a statement and acknowledged what he wrote was unacceptable.
  • Marquette revokedthe athletic scholarship of an incoming freshman earlier this month over a Snapchat post that compared George Floyd’s death with Colin Kaepernick’s NFL protest.
  • A private women’s college in Georgia, Wesleyan College, expelleda student earlier this month over offensive social media posts.

The effort picked up dramatically amid Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the end of May. Racist posts on Twitter are frequently tagged with “Twitter, do your thing,” encouraging users to investigate who might be behind the account in question, and how to punish them effectively, such as complaining to an employer or prospective college.
The public shaming can follow students across schools and careers, even when a prospective university won’t take action, said Kishawn Kitson, a Jamaican immigrant and student at Miami Dade College in South Florida. He said being labeled a racist online can be a permanent reminder of a grave mistake.

“At the end of the day, it’s on social media,” Kitson said. “That would have more of a hit than a university kicking them out.”

The University of Florida, which has struggled to attract black students, announcedlast week on Twitter that a student who posted racist comments on social media will not be attending school there in the fall.

The university did not identify the student, but an online campaign earlier this month had targeted Liberty Woodley, 17, of Cape Coral, a Republican, mostly white and upper-middle class community in southwest Florida. Woodley wrote in a private Instagram post in 2019 that two black female classmates were annoying and "most definitely crackwhores," adding that "people like them actually do nothing for society."

Woodley did not return phone messages, and she shut down her Instagram account. Her parents did not return phone messages or emails. But in earlier interviews, Woodley told her local newspaper, the News-Press of Fort Myers, that she had sincerely apologized and that she wrote the post out of anger. She said she called UF's admissions office four days before the university made its announcement on Twitter.

“I haven’t engaged in any hate,” Woodley told the newspaper. “I am not racist at all and I am not full of hate.”

A UF spokesman, Steve Orlando, confirmed last week that Woodley was no longer a prospective student. He declined to say whether UF rescinded her admissions offer or she changed her mind.

The university had earlier said on Twitter it was investigating social media posts by students or prospective students it said were disturbing, offensive and deeply troubling. "We strongly reaffirm our commitment to a diverse campus community where people from all races, origins and religions are valued equally, welcomed and treated with love, not hate," the school said in a tweet.

The chairman of UF’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering Department, Juan Gilbert, who is black, published strategiesearlier this month intended to promote college diversity and conversations about racial issues.  

“Right now we’re dealing with a crisis that involves black or African American individuals,” Gilbert said. “If the next crisis deals with Hispanics or Native Americans, my guidelines still apply.” He urged professors to talk to white students: “This is their problem, too, so make this clear this isn’t just a black student problem.”

Efforts to invoke consequences even for racist posts can collide with First Amendment protections, especially at state universities, which are also governed by state constitutional protections. Louisiana State University responded to complaints about another prospective student using a slang version of the n-word by citing his free speech rights, stoking further outrage.

“We at LSU condemn hate and bigotry in any form, including racially incendiary remarks,” the school said in its tweetlast week. “As a state university, however, we are subject to constitutional limitation on our ability to take action in response to free speech.”

Public university students or faculty making racist, homophobic or sexist comments on their own personal devices are protected under the First Amendment, said Clay Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida.

“The fact that the First Amendment may protect you from engaging in certain types of speech does not mean that you should engage,” Calvert said. “The First Amendment gives us a lot of length that we’re lucky to have… but we should use those rights responsibly, ethically and morally.”

Universities can sometimes employ codes of conduct or cyberbullying laws to punish people accused of harassing communications, Calvert said.

The shaming efforts also are complicated by questions about holding youths accountable for what they say or write even as minors. Criminal cases against teenagers younger than 18 are often adjudicated behind closed doors in juvenile courts, where records are sealed to avoid long-term consequences when they become adults. Accusations online that someone used a racist term, even as a young teen, can persist for years, affecting future education, employment, relationships and more.

The online effort has revealed a shockingly large number of posts across popular social media services – Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok and others – by young Americans who have said remarkably racist, insensitive statements. It's occasionally included a robust debate online about the wisdom of public shaming, especially targeting young internet users.

At times, the campaigns have misfired. Amid online accounts that can be shielded by pseudonyms, wrong users have been outed falsely as racists.

"Please do not comment on his page anymore," wrote Disney Channel celebrity Skai Jackson, who has publicized racist posts to her more than 558,000 Twitter followers. "Someone sent me the wrong Dylan. He is not the one who made the racist song, just to clear that up!"

Minutes later, she implored her followers: "If you are sending me anyone’s username please make sure you have it 100% correct. It’s not cool to blame someone for something they didn’t do."

In Arkansas, a student at Mount St. Mary Academy High in Little Rock, Meg Vondran, was identified in a photo on Twitter earlier this month wearing makeup that appeared to be blackface, along with a video in which her father, Charles, was accused of yelling a racial slur. In an interview, he disputed it was his voice in the video, saying it was one of his daughter’s male friends.

Vondran said his family received death threats throughout the week, with calls for his orthodontist license to be revoked. He said he spoke with his daughter about the photograph.

“My wife and I spoke to our daughter about how offensive blackface is and she understands and regrets what she did,” he said.

John David of Miami, a public relations executive and author of a book about protecting and repairing online reputations, said even young students should consider how a tweet or Instagram caption might be received by a college admissions officer or relative. People who have written questionable posts should openly apologize, he said.

“There’s a tremendous attitude in America,” David said, “to forgive people.”

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at tnavarro@freshtakeflorida.com

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