UMD president: we all must 'fight racism, extremism and hate'

In the early morning hours of Saturday, May 20, a young man was murdered on the University of Maryland College Park campus, a senseless and unprovoked act. Richard Collins III, a student at Bowie State University, had just been commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army and was within days of his graduation. A promising life was ended all too soon, leaving families and communities to mourn.

The suspect is a UMD student. The state's attorney of Prince George's County is overseeing the investigation and prosecution of the suspect, supported by the county police, the UMD Police Department and the FBI. They will examine whether racial hatred was a motive, given the suspect's association with an online white supremacist group; the victim was black.

National polls show that most Americans believe that expressions of hate are increasing and going mainstream. Sadly, such incidents have affected our campus before.

A fraternity member's email to some friends that disparaged women and people of color was leaked and went viral. Unknown persons posted white supremacist fliers in public areas. Recently, a noose was found in a fraternity house.

I condemned each of these incidents. But even the strongest denunciations of hate speech feel wholly insufficient. Groups of students have demanded immediate sanctions.

With the offensive email, we focused on restorative justice. The student was remorseful for the hurt he caused and made amends. Most of the fraternity members were unaware of the email, but they voluntarily sought diversity and inclusion training.

The perpetrators of the flier postings were not caught on security cameras, but our police believe they were persons from outside the campus. The noose incident is still under active investigation by police.

Faced with over 60 demands by a group of students to increase campus inclusiveness and safety, we declined some and implemented others. For example, we did not designate UMD as a "sanctuary campus" because we already have policies that protect undocumented students to the full extent the law permits. We retained staff to support them and invited volunteer attorneys to advise them.

An incident of chalking the words "deport" and "build a wall" by unknown persons on campus sidewalks was decried by some as hate speech, illustrating that many young men and women at UMD and elsewhere are questioning where free speech ends and hate speech begins.

The First Amendment was intended as a shield to safeguard dissent against the government. However, those who denigrate people solely because of their race, faith, gender or sexual orientation argue that their hateful speech is permissible as free speech.

"Fighting words" — those that by their mere utterance inflict emotional injury and tend to incite breach of the peace — are exceptions to the First Amendment. Surely, when wielded as a weapon, hate speech does not deserve constitutional protection. Many other liberal democracies sanction such speech.

Still, reasonable people disagree over where to draw the line. As marketplaces of ideas, universities prepare the next generation of citizens and leaders to wrestle openly with these ideas, so central to our democracy.

We are forming a campus-wide task force for a comprehensive review of UMD policies and procedures related to hate-bias and campus safety. It will make recommendations on hate prevention. It will engage the campus on issues at the intersection of free speech and hate speech.

We allocated $100,000 for additional diversity and inclusion programming to benefit all members of the UMD community.

We will deploy a trained, rapid-response team in any hate-bias incident in order to provide support to any UMD member who is the subject of such an incident.

We will disseminate an annual report on all hate-bias incidents on campus. It will tell us the scope of the problem and the effectiveness of our response and prevention.

These actions are a beginning.

These are fraught times on our campus, across the nation and around the world. It is on all of us to stand up and fight racism, extremism and hate. They are cancers in our body politic.

United by this recent tragedy, we can be a force for good. Together, we can be stronger and smarter than those who would divide us and subvert the values that undergird our university and our democracy.

And, we will prevail.

Wallace D. Loh (president@umd.edu) is president of the University of Maryland.

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