The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has had two major white supremacists rise to the surface in the past two years. These situations have been extreme, as both students have shown outrageous hatred toward minority populations, instilling uneasiness throughout the university. All the while, university officials have remained unsettlingly quiet about these cases, particularly the most recent one.
In the face of prejudice, UNL has remained complicit in addressing issues of racist and offensive speech, mostly choosing silence over confrontation.
The most recent instance occurred in March of this year when Bennett Bressman, a UNL student, was caught making anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist comments in a chatroom between January and October 2018. Bressman’s comments included statements such as “gays are the scum of the earth” and “my whole political ideology revolves around harming journalists,” as well as expression of his desire to run over members of the Black Lives Matter movement and throw grenades at gay pride rallies.
In response to the situation, UNL released a statement, declaring that racism and bigotry is not tolerated and the UNL Police Department will assess Bressman’s comments. While there’s no way of knowing whether UNLPD has evaluated his threats and what its determination is, given UNL’s history of dealing with issues such as these, it’s not unreasonable to assume that little will be done to punish Bressman.
Since the statement was released, the university administration has failed to host any public discussion or take action against Bressman. Despite his prejudiced and harmful comments, it seems nothing has been done to resolve this problem or to engage students in a conversation about the issue.
Bressman isn’t the first active white supremacist to be discovered at UNL. In 2018, Daniel Kleve, another UNL student, was found discussing his affinity for violence in the name of white nationalism in a Google Hangout with fellow white supremacists. Despite Kleve’s statements about wanting to commit violent acts, UNL officials claimed his opinions, including hateful comments about minority groups and a desire to commit violence, were protected under the university’s policy of free speech.
Kleve was not expelled or punished in any way. University officials should’ve removed Kleve from campus after he said he would like to commit violence. At the very least, UNL should have issued some kind of punishment, such as suspension. This would have helped ensure student safety as well as send a clear message to the UNL community that hate will not be tolerated. Instead, it did the bare minimum to quiet down community complaints about the university’s lack of action.
Rather than punishing students like Bressman and Kleve for discriminatory comments intended to incite fear and hatred against minority groups, UNL officials have instead decided to take small, largely inconsequential steps toward bettering the campus climate. The university only commented on the Daniel Kleve issue once it had became obvious the student body was uncomfortable and fearful for its safety. After members of the UNL community demanded action, university officials launched the Hate Will Never Win campaign, created the position of vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion and sent out a campus climate survey to assess feelings of safety and inclusivity within the campus community.
While these are steps in the right direction, they all distract from the fact that no action was taken against Kleve. And now, history is repeating itself.
In the case of Bressman, university officials have done even less to address the issue at hand. The small steps that were taken in the case of Kleve were only made so students would believe more was being done about the situation. However, aside from a released statement that UNLPD will look into the situation, no visible action has been taken to punish Bressman or ensure students’ voices are being heard.
Comments made by students like Bressman and Kleve have offended students on this campus, causing them to feel scared in their own home. This feeling is only reinforced when university officials make it clear that the ability for some students to make hurtful comments is held to a higher standard than the safety of minority students.
Students’ safety needs to be prioritized. For the university to follow its stated values of diversity of ideas and peoples, UNL needs to put the protection of students before anything else. While freedom of speech is obviously an important component of campus culture, it shouldn’t be placed over the safety and well-being of students. Bressman’s violent statements communicate not only potential intent to harm members of marginalized groups on campus, but a disregard for their humanity. UNL’s failure to take action only serves to make people like Bressman feel more comfortable at the expense of the students he is denigrating.
This hands-off reaction to prejudice leaves room for others to follow the same path, thinking it’s okay to put out abusive comments that incite fear among others since they will receive no administrative consequences. When situations of prejudice arise, threatening student safety and inclusion, the university is responsible for stepping up and taking action, not simply putting out a statement addressing the issue. If UNL says it does not tolerate hatred, it should actually follow through with that statement.
UNL needs to be harsher when addressing situations such as these. Actual punishments should be handed out in particularly grievous instances to show that UNL will actually handle the problem instead of just making a statement to quiet down dissenters. A penalty should be given such as suspension for a designated period of time.
UNL has failed to show it cares about those whom this speech could be affecting. It is solely the responsibility of the university to take action against all forms of hate and exclusivity to make this campus all-encompassing. The campus will never truly be an inclusive one until officials choose to take action against hate on campus.