After free-speech watchdog group Speech First filed a lawsuit against the University of Michigan last May, the University has restricted the housing staff, such as resident advisors and diversity peer educators, from removing speech from student doors — including hate speech.
The lawsuit was filed against the University’s Bias Response Team and accused the school of limiting students’ abilities to express themselves freely. Since then, the University has attempted to show its commitment to the First Amendment by allowing more student expression. In the dormitories, this means no writings or postings can be removed from a student’s door without the student’s permission.
One RA, who has chosen to remain anonymous due to legal concerns, believes the implementation of a policy restricting how racist speech is handled could be problematic. They think the policy will negatively affect the students it targets.
“I most definitely think it can have an emotional impact,” they said. “If you wake up in the morning and you open your door and see something [offensive], it can make you feel like you don’t belong, it can make you feel like you’re not a valued member of the community and that you’re out of place.”
The RA also brought up past incidents involving racist messages on student doors. Last year there was an incident in West Quad involving three Black students’ whose doors were vandalized with hate speech, including the N-word. The RA emphasized how having to be in an environment where derogatory speech is present can have an impact on students’ wellbeing.
“Even last year’s event of the n-word being on the door… ” they said. “I knew some of those people [who saw were affected by it] and it most definitely has an impact on you and other people who have those same identities or simply empathize with you. It can have an emotional toll because as a human being, sometimes you say, ‘This is wrong,’ but it gets a lot into what is right and wrong and who constitutes that, so I do think it can be difficult to maneuver and that’s where morality and University policies have trouble interplaying.”
LSA sophomore Ruchi Wankhede also reflected on the incident in West Quad Residence Hall when considering the policy. As someone who has lived in West Quad for the last two years, she recalled how upsetting the situation was. She said she’s wary of RAs and DPEs losing their ability to remove oppressive speech.
“Last year, I was in West Quad when the whole incident with racist slurs on doors happened,” Wankhede said. “Those are my hallmates. It was so jarring for everyone involved, everyone in the community. The fact that the free speech is there, the fact that the University didn’t help out that much with the investigation is very upsetting. We still don’t even know who did it to this day.”
Amir Baghdadchi, senior associate director of University Housing, explained the intricacies of dealing with housing spaces. While the policy does not extend to community areas, such as housing notice boards, student doors are deemed personal spaces, and the individuals whom they belong to have the right to express themselves in almost any way they please.
“Housing spaces are unique for a couple of reasons,” Baghdadchi said. “One is that they actually are a balance between being community spaces — places that we all share and we want those to be inclusive. At the same time, individual rooms — those are personal spaces. Of course, the building has to balance both of those, and that means in every housing building you’ve got at least two different kinds of spaces.”
He further emphasized the University’s dedication to the First Amendment, and noted how even if some individuals find speech on a student’s door upsetting, the student still has a right to express themselves.
“It’s the University’s commitment as a whole to be very clear about how we do not suppress speech, even when it is an opinion we find detestable,” Baghdadchi said. “We don’t censor that speech.”
Though not all speech can be removed, there is a process in place for RAs and DPEs to follow if racist statements are present on an individual’s door. Baghdadchi said the first response to potentially harmful speech is reporting it to a professional staff member who then takes the information to the Housing Diversity and Inclusion unit, which directs the incident to the Division of Public Safety and Security, the hall director or another University official. There are also conversations held with the student who was the source of the speech as well as with those who are impacted by the speech. Additionally, if any speech threatens violence against another individual or group, the threat is handled by DPSS.
Along with filing reports, Baghdadchi explained how RAs can use their connection to hall residents to help guide them through difficult situations.
“Now on the other hand, one of the most important things RAs can do is support their residents,” Baghdadchi said.
The RA also explained how they would go about handling a situation involving a racist or derogatory comment on a door, and emphasized the importance of taking the impacted student’s lead as to how to resolve the issue.
“One thing I’ve been a big proponent of is treating people how they want to be treated,” they said. “Let’s say someone who was impacted by this situation, I may want to take this action, but first you need to talk to them and see what they want to do and see how they feel. It’s important to take care of them first, whether that be a conversation or connecting them with other resources because as RAs, you can’t do everything.”
While the RA has a plan for responding to a situation where a resident posts an offensive comment on their door in a manner that coincides with the policy, they also admitted it would be difficult to watch their residents go through these types of situations.
“I think it’s hard,” they said. “I see something and say, ‘That’s obviously not right,’ or, ‘That’s obviously going to have some sort of implication on the resident.’ I don’t want them to see that. It’s not like I walk around like, ‘That’s not my problem, that’s on you.’ I feel bad, too, but understanding on several ends of things people have reasons for why they do things and there are other mechanisms to create understanding.”
Baghdadchi acknowledged how even though immediately removing harmful speech may seem like the right way to handle a situation, it is not always the most permanent solution. He explained while the University is demonstrating its commitment to free speech, he also believes they are demonstrating their commitment to students impacted by racial slurs through providing the appropriate responses.
“The responsibility (to impacted students) lies in responding in a timely, effective way to that student, giving that student support, making it clear that the message they see, that they may find harmful to them, does not represent the University’s point of view,” Baghdadchi said. “… Taking it upon ourselves to do a follow-up with the source of that speech.”
Moving forward, the RA explained how even though the inability to immediately remove racist speech may make some residents feel like nothing is being done, the housing staff is working to make sure the right reports are being filed so the right steps can be taken to handle the situation.
“It can seem as though we aren’t doing anything,” they said. “But there is action taking place. It’s just not the immediate action of ripping something down.”