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UI Officials to Talk With Three Students About Online Threats To American Indians


University of Illinois officials said this week they plan to talk to at least three students they believe may be behind threats against an American Indian student. The threats were posted on a Web page about the school’s mascot, Chief Illiniwek.

Disciplinary action is possible if the Web page’s content violates the university’s Student Code, depending on the writers’ intent, said dean of students Bill Riley, who declined to identify the students. Punishment could range from probation to expulsion.

The university’s assistant police chief, Jeff Christensen, said his department is investigating the threats.

“The words are either indicative of his intention, or he’s blowing smoke,” Riley said. Officials will also talk to the unidentified graduate student who was the target of the threats. Riley said the student is concerned about returning to school for the spring semester, which begins Tuesday.

The threatening comments were posted to a site, a social networking Web site that requires its users to have an e-mail address from a university. Illinois administrators learned about the Facebook page through an e-mail sent by a student who was concerned about the page’s content.

“I say we throw a tomahawk into her face,” one person wrote in reference to the American Indian student, according to a copy of the e-mail obtained by The Associated Press.

Another wrote: “… I hate redskins and hope all those drunk casino-owning bums die.”

In an e-mail to all students and faculty obtained by Diverse, chancellor Richard Herman said he would not stand for such hate speech. “The idea that the debate over [the use of an American Indian mascot] could degenerate to personal attacks that threaten the physical safety and well being of members of the campus community is something that all of us should find truly abhorrent,” he wrote. “As chancellor, I can not and will not tolerate such violent threats. The university will take all legal and disciplinary actions available in response to the threatening messages.

“As future leaders and as citizens of our campus community, and later as citizens of a nation and world, we must engage in a far deeper dialogue about how we are to agree to disagree,” the e-mail continued. “Vigorous debate is good and it is constitutionally protected — but debate should be based on ideas, not empty-headed slurs or vicious threats.”

Dr. Brenda Farnell, a professor in the university’s American Indian studies program, says the threatened student is Sioux and has been actively opposed to Chief Illiniwek. Farnell says the student has been the recipient of hate speech before.

Administrators at some schools keep an eye on their students’ online lives. But the University of Illinois doesn’t monitor the online postings of its 30,000-plus students, says spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

“Way too many students and way too many Web sites for that,” she says.

Universities considering disciplining students for online speech should ensure the language “rises to the level of being a threat in a legal sense,” or students might refrain from online discussion, suggests Ed Yohnka, director of communications for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

The ACLU is not involved in the current situation at the university, he said.

Chief Illiniwek, portrayed by a student, has performed at Fightin’ Illini sports events since 1926.

Many American Indians say they are offended by the chief and other American Indian characters used by sports teams. Supporters defend the use of the mascot as a way of honoring American Indians.

The NCAA in 2005 decided that Chief Illiniwek and most other American Indian mascots are a “hostile and abusive” use of American Indian imagery. The university has since been barred from hosting postseason sports.

— Associated Press and Diverse staff reports

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