Faculty respond to racist Snapchat messages

Many faculty members are signing a petition to have a university faculty meeting on Tuesday

Robin Armagost

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Bridget Kelley

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Photo by Rebecca Mennecke

Schofield Hall, where many of the administrative offices are located, from earlier this fall.

In response to the racist Snapchat conversation that surfaced last Tuesday, several faculty members of UW-Eau Claire are signing a petition to have a university faculty meeting at 3 p.m. on Tuesday in the Davies Student Center — right before Thanksgiving break. 

Several members of the Blugold football team who were allegedly a part of the group chat were confirmed to be suspended from the team, according to Chancellor James Schmidt. 

However, some UW-Eau Claire faculty want to pursue the matter even more. 

Kate Hinnant, head of instruction on communication of McIntyre Library and associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, gathered signatures from faculty last Friday for the petition.

“We don’t want to stand in the way of student response,” Hinnant said. “But these incidents create a difficult environment for students of color.”

Hinnant said she first found out about the incident on Tuesday night from students and read about it on the local news the next day. 

“I felt dismay and horror,” Hinnant said. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.” 

Hinnant said she believes the messages are not protected by the First Amendment when they veer into threats. 

“The issue isn’t the punishment, but why it happened in the first place,” Hinnant said. “What are we doing in teaching against racism?” 

Bob Nowlan, a professor of English, was one of the faculty who signed the petition. Nowlan said some students believe racism is a thing of the past and that it ended with the Civil Rights Movement and President Barack Obama.

Ryan Jones, a professor of history, also signed the petition and said he agrees with Nolan. 

Jones said when he found out about the incident, he wanted to give the students involved in the incident the benefit of the doubt. He wanted to believe the students were just ignorant — not threatening and racist, he said. 

“They think it’s a meaningless gesture,” Jones said. “They don’t understand and think racism is ancient history.”

Cathy Rex, a professor of English and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, signed the petition. She found out about the incident on Tuesday evening while teaching class. The class spent a half-hour talking about the subject. 

“Here we go again,” Rex said. “This happened not long after the racial incident earlier this semester, and I’m not shocked.” 

Rex said she is not advocating for punishment, but free speech is not a “get out of jail free card.” The line of free speech, Rex said, is drawn when people feel threatened and unvalued. 

“I hope there will be action on campus,” Rex said. “Not just tweets and empty gestures, I want something to change.” 

Schmidt said in an interview Thursday that the university is not trying to cover up this incident but rather use this incident as a teaching opportunity. 

“This is a black eye for the institution,” Schmidt said. “But what’s different about this institution – at least, in my heart and from my perspective – (is) we are not trying to cover that black eye up.”

Peter Hart-Brinson, an associate professor of sociology and communication and journalism, said he found out about the racist incident on Wednesday morning through The Leader-Telegram. 

Prior to the recent incident, Hart-Brinson said racial inequality in the U.S. has been a topic discussed in one of his sociology classes for the past two weeks. 

Hart-Brinson said he supports the First Amendment and free speech, but he also understands that there are consequences of some speech as well. 

“I have seen the ways students of color are silenced,” Hart-Brinson said. “This current climate on campus does not help students of color and the university needs to address this issue.” 

Kent Syverson, a professor of geology and faculty advisor for The Flipside, said he was sad and puzzled by the event, but was not surprised. 

Syverson said racist incidents are not a new thing on campus, but are still disappointing, nonetheless. 

Although Syverson said he doesn’t understand how people joking about the Klu Klux Klan is funny, the messages are protected by the First Amendment. 

Syverson said UW-Eau Claire is governed by law, so trying to punish the students would possibly get the university into some trouble. 

“You cannot force people to treat others with respect,” Syverson said. 

Syverson said he believes people need to speak up and not take the law into their own hands. 

“It’s unfortunate when speech hurts,” Syverson said. “When speech hurts, the solution is to have more speech.” 

Syverson said people who try to punish others for their speech may experience the same type of response from others.

“Imagine if political parties could control speech,” Syverson said. “That’s a medieval thing and we don’t want to go there.”

Armagost can be reached at [email protected].

Kelley can be reached at [email protected].