St. Thomas strengthens its policy on hate speech

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 27, 2007 - 6:12 PM

The university, where three women received hateful notes last month, is addressing how it will handle such incidents.

Following several cases this year of racial slurs scrawled on posters and threatening notes, the University of St. Thomas has adopted more explicit procedures to handle behavior considered hate crimes, harassment and other bias-related conduct.

The policies, which will work in conjunction with the school's existing offensive-behavior statement, address actions already considered criminal and "bias-motivated incidents" that could include conduct, speech or an act of intolerance against people for their race, color, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion or disability.

In a message to students, faculty and staff, St. Thomas president Rev. Dennis Dease said the crafting of the policies began more than a year ago. Karen Lange, St. Thomas' dean of students, said the process was influenced by two incidents earlier this year in which racial slurs were written on posters hung in an academic building.

"The goal was to get diverse voices to the table to discuss the policy and to have a protocol that's consistent at the university," Lange said. "If something happens, no matter where it happens at the university, we have sort of one central policy and protocol that would respond."

Last month, three women at the St. Paul university had racial slurs and threatening words written on a dry-erase board on the outside of their residence hall door. Several racially charged notes were left on the trio's door in the next two days.

Security officers have been posted outside the women's room since late October, according to school spokesman Jim Winterer. The incidents are being investigated by St. Paul police with help from the FBI.

While speech deemed as "bias-motivated" is forbidden by the policies, Lange said that it is not meant to stop the free flow of ideas and viewpoints in the classroom. Nationally, speech codes have been criticized in part because what one person considers hateful language can be deemed free speech by another.

"You can have topics come up in the classroom that can challenge your belief system and that doesn't mean it's a hate crime or a bias crime," Lange said. "It can be something that's difficult to talk about but you do it in an environment where you have a faculty member as an expert and a moderator.

"There are going to be times in a classroom where things are going to come up and it's going to be a legitimate classroom discussion and that's really not at all what this is addressing."

Jeff Shelman • 612-673-7478

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