By: Caitlyn Freeman, editor in chief
As some students are demanding Towson University punish members of its chapter of Turning Point USA for using racist, ableist and homophobic language, policy experts say the First Amendment prevents the public institution from taking significant action.
The local chapter of the conservative student group came under scrutiny in early October after screenshots showing members in a group chat using slurs to refer to LGBTQ and Black people, as well as people with disabilities, began circulating campus.
The messages sent some students into an uproar, with many demanding the university to no longer allow the group to exist on campus. In the two weeks since the messages were leaked, many students have expressed discontent with the lack of action taken by the administration in response to the messages.
While campus leaders such as the Student Government Association President Jordan Colquitt and Patricia Bradley, TU’s Vice President for Inclusion and Institutional Equity, have denounced the group, policy experts say administrators are right not to impose further action because it must abide by the First Amendment as a public institution.
What the law says
The First Amendment provides freedom of speech, religion and the press. Additionally, the amendment guarantees ones right to petition and assemble.
While specific language may be inflammatory, it is still protected by the First Amendment, according to the TU policy for reporting hate crimes and Bias Incidents. TU must take a content-neutral stance regarding student speech or the university could be subject to lawsuits.
“Bigoted, homophobic, racist assholes exist on our campus,” Bradley told attendees of an Oct. 7 listening session held to address the messages. “And guess what, those bigoted, racist, homophobic assholes have constitutional protections.”
According to David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, an organization focused on protecting freedom of speech and press, the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case Brandenburg vs. Ohio ruled the government can only limit speech if it intends to cause harm, there is a likelihood the speech will cause harm and if the harm is imminent.
While the court ruled in 1942 that fighting words do not receive First Amendment protections, Loy said the exception is poorly defined as it only applies in specific instances, like a face-to-face interaction that could lead to violence. Thus, since the leaked messages showed no evidence of threats being made toward others or fighting words, they do not violate the university’s policy on hate bias and don’t meet Brandenburg standards.
“There’s nothing [in the messages] that rises to the level of something unprotected by the First Amendment,” Loy said. “Simply because somebody expresses a point of view that is hateful, that is fully protected.”
During the Oct. 7 listening session, several attendees expressed safety concerns regarding the messages as members of marginalized groups on campus. Loy said that while the concerns are valid, they do not meet the need for university intervention under existing law.
“The fact that people are aware that some of their fellow students harbor these extreme views, it’s just not sufficient to state a claim for action, hostile environment, harassment,” Loy said.
While recognizing the safety concerns, Kevin Goldberg, a First Amendment specialist at the Freedom Forum, a First Amendment advocacy organization, said the students outraged should support the university’s dedication to upholding freedom of speech in a content-neutral manner. Essentially, when the government begins policing speech, it’s a slippery slope.
“I understand the students’ positions,” Goldberg said. “But when you look at this from the bigger sentence, what you’re really doing is potentially taking political speech off the table.”
He added that historically, laws meant to prevent the protection of hate speech often do the opposite.
Previous First Amendment conflict
This is not the first time TU has faced a similar dilemma.
In 2011 former student Matthew Heimbach created the TU chapter of the Youth for Western Civilization, which became SGA-affiliated, allowing the group access to funding, The Towerlight reported at the time.
YWC, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed a hate group, received heavy backlash for its stance against LGBTQ rights, with students demanding they be banned from campus. However, the then-Student Government Association allowed the group to become affiliated to uphold First Amendment rights and prevent a lawsuit.
In 2012, the chapter’s adviser, longtime professor Richard Vatz, resigned as the club’s sponsor after they chalked “white pride” throughout the campus. Because organizations must have a sponsor to be officially recognized, the chapter dissolved.
Soon after, Heimbach started the White Student Union, which was never considered to be an official student organization as it lacked a faculty sponsor. He later founded the Traditionalist Worker Party, a white nationalist organization, according to the SPLC.
As with YWC, many students have called for the Turning Point chapter to be kicked off campus, with several taking to the SGA Instagram to express their demands.
“We will be moving forward in collaboration with the students who obtained the messages to demand that there are changes to university policy to prevent organizations dedicated to hate from spreading their bigotry on campus,” TU’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America said in a statement on Oct. 6.
However, SGA can only reprimand the club if it violates its financial policy.
The chapter is not currently receiving funding as they’ve yet to reach the required benchmarks. The only way for the chapter to be dissolved in reaction to the messages is if they lose their faculty advisor.
However, Vatz, now the advisor for TU Turning Point, said he would keep his sponsorship despite the evidence of bigotry within the group. The Towerlight reached out to him asking whether he would forgo sponsorship because of the messages. He said he would remain as the students were apologetic.
“Turning Point knows that their advisor was genuinely appalled and considers them effectively on probation,” Vatz told The Towerlight. “If I were a betting man (and I am not), I would bet heftily that their rhetorical immaturity and irresponsibility will never be repeated. I do believe in redemption for those who seriously seek it, especially for non-capital crimes committed by youth.
Echoing Loy, Haley Gluhanich, a program officer focusing on campus rights advocacy at Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said TU is obligated to uphold its students’ First Amendment rights.
“I think what’s really important to note is that although the university may not punish the student group, or the students for this speech, just like these TPUSA students were able to use their first amendment rights to say what they want whether people agree with it or don’t, find it offensive or not,” Gluhanich said. “The students who do find some speech offensive, they can also use their voice and their First Amendment right to criticize these students.”