If I hadn't noticed the Western Alert text on my phone until later Tuesday morning, I would have thought that I would be late to my 8 AM class. Because the text hadn't contained any specific information, I did not know the seriousness of the situation. It wasn't until I went on Yik Yak and Facebook that I figured out what was going on.
When I finally read the email, my heart sank. I had been in Washington, D.C., when talk of a mascot change dominated the likes of Facebook and Yik Yak. There was much complaining, tasteless humor, and even good jokes that dominated these two platforms, but of what I had encountered, nothing that I construed as a threat or being hostile. I knew I could trust President Shepard about the severity of the social media content, because classes are rarely canceled and the school tends to be good with abiding by the First Amendment, thus knowing how to differentiate between free and unprotected speech.
Regardless of what you think of a mascot change, resorting to racist speech and blows to individuals are immature and unnecessary moves. However, for the most part, this is protected speech. The real problem arises when speech implies acting upon an illegal action, such as killing someone or destroying property. Threats are not protected by the First Amendment.
In another update from President Shepard, we learn of some of the speech, both protected and possibly unprotected, that contributed to the decision of canceling classes. Of what he was at liberty to disclose to the public, a majority of the problematic posts from Yik Yak had to do with lynching. These were directed at both individuals and groups of people.
At first glance, the First Amendment seems pretty straightforward, protecting the rights of United States citizens to free speech and expression, freedom of association, free exercise of religion, freedom of the press, and the right to peacefully assemble. However, as illustrated by certain court cases, such as Dennis v. United States and Virginia v. Black, determining what is legal under the First Amendment isn’t always easy.
Since President Shepard mentions that there was an effort to differentiate free from unprotected speech, a successfully obtained warrant from a judge, and a professional opinion that some of these posts may require use of the criminal justice system, I believe that a cancellation of classes was necessary, as many students of color expressed fear concerning the hostile environment. Students should not have to fear for their well-being in order to get an education.
In order for us to completely understand what has happened, we need to look at all sides of this incident and educate ourselves on how the law may or may not be on our side. For more information on the First Amendment, especially on how it affects college campuses, check out the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Most importantly, look out for each other and stay safe.