Friday, February 01, 2008

And that's one, too 

A male student has been identified as possibly drawing a swastika on a Stearns Hall bulletin board on SCSU's campus. The exact nature of the act of which the student has admitted (according to the article) is that "Shortly after 5:30 a.m. Monday, January 28, residence hall staff in Stearns Hall observed a swastika drawn on an information board posted outside a sixth floor student�s room." But he has admitted only for one case. While the police cannot yet establish if a crime was committed (we do not have an anti-swastika law like New York's) the campus is likely to move forward against the student:

St. Cloud State spokeswoman Marge Proell said the man has been linked only to the Stearns Hall incident.

In a statement issued Thursday to students and staff, St. Cloud State President Earl H. Potter III said the university will address the matter under the Student Code of Conduct.

As many as 19 such incidents have been reported to campus security since November. The university has issued eight safety alerts during that time related to the incidents.

The Student Code of Conduct calls the following a "prohibited conduct":

4. Intentionally, recklessly or negligently placing any person under mental duress or causing any person to be in fear of physical danger through verbal abuse, harassment (including repeated phone calls), sexual harassment, hazing, intimidation, threats or other conduct which threatens or endangers that person's emotional, mental or physical well-being.
The question is whether the drawing of a swastika can be reasonably seen as causing mental duress. In that sense, the repeated advertising of the graffiti and other activity may have created the expectation that a student will be protected from seeing the symbol. (I worry I might have just suggested the prosecution's strategy.) If they pursue this case, it will be one broadly watched among free speech advocates. The ACLU is already on the case:

Teresa Nelson, legal counsel for the Minnesota American Civil Liberties Union, said the line between free speech and preventing a hostile environment on a public university campus isn't always clear.

...Nelson said it's tough to know at what point controlling acts such as the recent incidents becomes censorship of people expressing opinions.

The ACLU has an older FAQ on hate speech and free speech on campus. It's worth noting Ms. Nelson's qualification of the line as depending on our being "a public university campus." I read with interest an old post by David Bernstein in which the ACLU made a case in favor of four neo-Nazis wearing swastika lapel pins into a private restaurant and being arrested when they refused to either remove the pins or leave. In that case, the restaurant owner had a legitimate private property right to ask for the pins to be hidden in order to serve the patrons. But dorms are weird in that they're public university but a place where students might expect more privacy. As I'm not a lawyer, I'm not going to speculate on how that gets solved.

We will now wait to see if the graffiti stops. If it does, there will be naturally the suspicion that the student identified may be responsible for more than the one. But it is also possible that the student is a copycat, using the press hysteria and campus angst to call attention to himself, or perhaps to make himself a First Amendment martyr. We shall see.

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