In September and October, Native American students at Sheridan College were the target of racial threats. In November, fliers calling the Holocaust a hoax were posted in several buildings at the University of Wyoming.
After the leaflets were discovered, UW President Laurie Nichols condemned them. At Sheridan College, officials are still searching for the person or people who wrote the racial epithets, and the college says it’s undergoing changes to make it is more open to non-white students, especially Native Americans.
“All campuses are dealing with this right now, this is not unique to the University of Wyoming,” Nichols said in a recent interview with the Star-Tribune. “I mean, you can’t pick up anything in the world of higher ed and not read about serious issues around racism.”
But the charges of racism on American college campuses often bump against free speech, Nichols said. Take the flyers: The university took them down, and they were technically illegal as the posting of handbills violated a Laramie ordinance. But the flyers’ content was free speech that, while completely false, is protected by the First Amendment, a UW spokesman said.
The university hired a diversity coordinator over the summer, a move partially spurred by student protests at UW. Nichols made the position a priority when she took over in spring 2016. Last week, she said “there has never been a time when it’s more important to have one than right now.”
American college campuses have been wrestling with charges of institutional racism in recent years. The University of Missouri was the site of widespread protests calling for the resignation of top college and state education officials in 2015. A student went on a hunger strike, and the school’s chancellor and the university system’s president both stepped down.
More recently, college campuses have been the site of clashes and protests related to controversial speakers. Protesters caused $100,000 worth of damage at the University of California, Berkeley over a planned appearance by controversial right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, who has called feminism cancer and has been associated with neo-Nazis.
After Buzzfeed News released emails revealing those associations, Yiannopoulos disavowed racism. A video discovered by Buzzfeed showed white supremacists performing the Nazi salute as Yiannopoulos sang “America the Beautiful” at a karaoke bar in Texas; Yiannopoulos said in his statement he could not see the men.
Richard Spencer was one of the men giving the Nazi salute to Yiannopoulos. A white supremacist who believes in the separation of the races, Spencer gave a speech at the University of Florida that drew massive protests and prompted Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency.
While the University of Wyoming has not been visited by a speaker similar to Yiannopoulos or Spencer, some students in Laramie were upset by conservative writer Dennis Prager, who spoke on campus last month.
UW students peacefully protested the speech, which was about how socialism makes people selfish. Prager was invited by Turning Point USA, a young conservative activism group.
A frequent recipient of criticism from the political left, Prager has written about a number of controversial topics, including his opposition to gay marriage, which he said was a more radical redefinition of marriage than the outlawing of polygamy.
Nichols said she was approached by students who wanted to invite Prager to speak and she “encouraged them to bring him in.”
“And then a group of students immediately were concerned by it and were kind of upset by it and wanted us to shut him down,” she continued. “But you know that’s an area where speaking about the right to free speech is very important and where we encourage you – this is what a college education is about. Go listen to what this person has to say. And if you don’t agree, speak up because it’s your opportunity to voice your opinion about it.”
While Prager may be controversial, protests against Yiannopoulos were sparked at least in part because he had previously displayed pictures of a transgender student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. The student was ridiculed and eventually withdrew from the school.
Asked where universities draw the line — if they do at all — on speakers, Nichols said it was a “really hard” and colleges must evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.
“You sit down with the student group, you talk about who they want to bring in, talk about the level of controversy,” she said. “You know, respecting rights on campus, you do try to do that. And if you need to up security, you just do it. That seems to be the stance that most universities have taken.”
“People are polarized,” she continued, “and that coming together and sitting down and talking about it, it’s a tougher issue today than maybe it was 10 years ago.”