Misunderstanding ‘Threats’ at the University of Illinois
February 15, 2007
by Samantha Harris
As we reported in a press release
this morning, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is threatening a student with discipline for a comment he posted on Facebook.com. The student was a member of a now-defunct Facebook.com group formed in response to a movement to get rid of Illinois’ Native American mascot, “Chief Illiniwek.” The group called itself “If They Get Rid of the Chief I’m Becoming a Racist,” and the student in question posted the following comment:
Apparently the leader of this movement is of Sioux descent. Which means what, you ask? The Sioux indians [sic] are the ones that killed off the Illini indians [sic], so she’s just trying to finish off what her ancestors started. I say we throw a tomohawk [sic] into her face.
It should be obvious that rather than attempting to incite a tomahawk attack on campus, this student was simply registering his extreme displeasure using the type of over-the-top, hyperbolic language favored by students nationwide (for example, a quick search of Facebook.com groups at my alma mater reveals the existence of groups such as “Every Facebook Group Should End With Bitch…Bitch”; “MOL 214 Makes Me Want to Punch a Baby in the Face…and I LOVE Babies”; and “Stalking is the Sincerest Form of Flattery.”)
Rather then giving this student the benefit of the doubt, however, the university launched an investigation into what Chancellor Richard Herman termed the “violent” and “vicious” threats. While true threats—which the U.S. Supreme Court has defined as “statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals” —are not protected by the First Amendment, this case does not involve such a threat. Rather, the student’s speech is what the Court has referred to as constitutionally protected “political hyperbole” (the example the Court gave of such protected hyperbole was a statement by a draft protestor that “[i]f they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.”)
This is truly a case of overkill on the part of the university. While the university has every right to decry speech that it considers offensive and inconsistent with the university’s values, it cannot, as a public institution, punish such speech. We hope the university will see this student’s comments for what they truly were and drop its unnecessary and unlawful investigation.