COLLEGE PARK, Md. — In an effort to clamp down on hate crimes on campus, a U.S. Congressman announced plans Thursday to introduce a bill that would deny federal financial aid to colleges and universities that don’t develop adequate plans to respond to hate crimes. Institutions of higher education would also be required to educate students about what makes hate crimes unique from constitutionally protected speech.
Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Maryland, made the announcement here at the University of Maryland, where last spring Lt. Richard Collins III — an African-American student from Bowie State University — was allegedly stabbed to death by a University of Maryland student with ties to White supremacist groups.
Brown said the killing of Collins was caused by the same forces of hate that led to the killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month while she was protesting a White nationalist rally that started out the night before at the University of Virginia.
“These incidents were not tragic, random acts of violence,” Brown told students here at the University of Maryland. “They were heinous, despicable and unprovoked crimes of hate.”
Brown linked the rise in hate incidents on campus to the presidency of Donald J. Trump, citing a recent statistic that shows hate watch groups have tracked 150 racist incidents on college campuses in 33 states since last fall.
“I think you’d have to be purposely obtuse not to see a direct correlation between the rise of Donald Trump the candidate to the Oval Office and the emboldening of these perpetrators across the country, both on and off campus,” Brown said.
“Something this year is different,” Brown continued. “These groups had not been highly engaged on college campuses in years past, but this year something has changed. The fact is that these issues reflect the complexities of race and prejudice in this country, issues that we’ve never fully worked through, a part of our nation that we’ve not yet perfected.”
Brown made his remarks in what will be one of a series of speeches that campus officials have planned throughout the year to help the university move forward after the tragic death of Collins and to facilitate dialogue on what can be done to prevent such tragedies in the future.
Dr. Roger Worthington, recently appointed chief diversity officer at the university, said one of the critical things that must be done on campus in the aftermath of Collins’ death is to “bring people together to have more of a sense of community and in a way that will eliminate some of the adversarial . . . relationships of people on campus who have vastly different views.”
“If I can help people work together to solve the problems that we have, that will be a success,” Worthington said. “If I can convince people that this is something important for the entire university to do, which I think there are a lot of people who area ready to believe that, and get those people to work together, then that is a success.”
Worthington said he could not comment on the merits of Brown’s proposed legislation because he had not reviewed it.
Diverse obtained a draft copy of the legislation titled “Creating Accountability Measures Protecting University Students Historically Abused, Threatened and Exposed to Crimes,” or the CAMPUS HATE Crimes Act.
Among other things, the bill states that no institution of higher education shall be eligible for federal financial aid unless it certifies to the secretary of education that it has “adopted and implemented a program to prevent and adequately respond to hate crimes within the jurisdiction of the institution or by students and employees.”
The response plan should spell out standards of conduct that “clearly prohibit, at a minimum, the acts or threats of violence, property damage, harassment, intimidation, or other crimes that specifically target an individual based on their race, religion, ethnicity, handicap, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identification by students and employees on the institution’s property or as part of any of the institution’s activities.”
The programs should also spell out the difference between hate crimes and constitutionally protected hate speech and what makes hate crimes unique compared to other violent crimes.
Just what constitutes hate speech on campus is a matter of debate.
For instance, Sarah Eshera, a senior who is majoring in math and philosophy, complained that the campus administration didn’t respond adequately last school year when someone chalked “Deport Dreamers” graffiti on campus.
Eshera said she would have liked for UMD President Wallace Loh to work with a consortium of student groups on meeting a list of 64 demands that the groups made before Collins’ death, including one that calls for the “immediate turnaround for the removal of hate speech printed or written on campus property, sidewalks and boards.” She said she would also like to see more transparency within the administration and more student involvement in decision-making.
Loh, speaking to Diverse in an interview after Thursday’s speech by Congressman Brown, said it’s not so easy.
“My answer is we can have a debate on (President Trump’s) deportation policy,” Loh said. “But am I gonna ban on purpose the person who wrote ‘deport’? I don’t think so.”
He noted how “fighting words” are not protected free speech based on Supreme Court rulings.
“The problem — in my view — is that the term ‘fighting words’ has been interpreted so narrowly it has to be an immediate threat of violence,” Loh said. “I think that should be open for consideration but that’s up to the Supreme Court.
“The problem for us (as universities) is that these are 18- to 22-year-olds,” Loh said. “They don’t want a philosophical debate. They want clear guidance.”
Loh said this year campus officials plan to review the university’s policies and potentially elevate sanctions for hate speech. He said his approach is not to have directives from the top but to have “people engage in conversation and dialogue and persuasion” in order to build a consensus.
Jason Harley, 22, a junior majoring in government and politics who says the killing of Collins “hit real close to home” because he regularly passes the bus stop where the killing took place, commended Congressman Brown for “doing his part.” However, Harley said he was skeptical that legislation on Capitol Hill could make a difference when it comes to the interactions of everyday people.
“I’m appreciative that he’s doing his part. There’s gonna have to be some form of legislation,” Harley said. “But if we’re not having conversation with people who believe these things (hateful ideas), you’re going to see change in DC but it’s not gonna happen among the people.”
Brown conceded that his proposed bill would only go so far. He noted that the proposed CAMPUS HATE Act includes a provision for universities to apply for grants to develop their hate crime response plans.
“Passing a law won’t change systemic problems but it will give colleges and universities tools to push back,” Brown said.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at [email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.