University of Mary Washington President Richard Hurley issued a letter to the president of a national feminist organization Monday, harshly criticizing a Title IX complaint filed against the school over how it handled harassment against female students.
The Title IX complaint, filed against the public Virginia university in May, alleges UMW administrators failed to act on numerous instances of online harassment, primarily on the anonymous gossip app Yik Yak, directed toward female members of the Feminists United Club. Lawyers for FUC, a campus branch of the nonprofit women's advocacy group Feminist Majority Foundation, provided screenshots to reporters purporting to demonstrate rape and death threats the students received.
Hurley's letter to Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal, which UMW spokeswoman Marty Morrison sent to multiple reporters Monday afternoon, emphasized the university didn't have legal authority to make demands of Yik Yak -- for example, it can't ask the company to provide the identity of users or order that posts be taken down. It also asserts that claims saying the university did not address concerns about the harassing posts was "demonstrably false."
Hurley's letter also noted that some of the reported threats weren't as bad as they were made out to be because they were taken from TV shows.
"Some of the Yik Yak comments were certainly offensive and appear alarming in isolation, but must be placed in context," Hurley wrote. "In particular, two of the comments highlighted in the complaint (and repeated most often in the press) are a direct quote from a sketch by the comedy group Whitest Kids U Know and a paraphrase of dialogue by a character on the television show 'American Horror Story: Freak Show.'"
When asked to clarify Hurley's statements, Morrison told The Huffington Post that the president meant to point out the posts were "offensive and disturbing," but "their significance was lessened in that they were drawn from widespread use in pop culture."
The specific posts Hurley is referring to are "Dandy's about to kill a bitch...or two" and "Gonna tie these feminists to a radiator and grape them in the mouth." The first, though not a direct quote from the show, is a reference to "American Horror Story." The second is a spin on a "Whitest Kids U Know" skit in which a giant bunch of grapes chases frightened children and the dialogue is based on rape jokes.
Julia Michels, president of FUC, told HuffPost her group had no idea these were pop culture reference and that members had assumed the use of "grape" was an attempt to get around Yik Yak's filters for certain words. As far as they knew, Michels said, that post was a rape threat.
Michels said she was frustrated people were downplaying the severity of the posts because they were references to TV shows. "Even if that's true," she added, "that's still joking about rape."
FUC was subject to harassment following their criticism of the university's response to sexist behavior by some members of the school's rugby team. Ultimately, the university decided to suspended the rugby squad indefinitely. FUC contended the university delayed action for months, but Jezebel reports emails it obtained through an open records request showed administrators had been "swiftly" making plans to punish the team.
The Feminist Majority Foundation did not respond to request for comment.
Hurley further accused FUC of inappropriately linking the April killing of Grace Mann, one of the group's members, with the Yik Yak threats. However, the complaint only briefly mentions Mann's death, on page 22 of 30. Mann's 30-year-old roommate, Steven Vander Briel, was charged with homicide in her death.
"By far, the most troubling aspect of FUC's and the Feminist Majority Foundation’s complaint is the implication that there is a connection between the concerns raised by members of FUC and the murder of Grace Mann," Hurley wrote. "Grace's death was a terrible tragedy, but it is irresponsible for FUC and the Feminist Majority Foundation to opine that it was related to the rise in explicit and offensive comments on Yik Yak."
The Title IX complaint does not explicitly link Mann's killing with Yik Yak threats or the administration's actions, but lawyers for FUC mentioned it in their filing.
Read the entire letter from UMW President Richard Hurley below:
Eleanor Smeal, President
Feminist Majority Foundation
June 8, 2015
Dear Ms. Smeal:
I write to respond to the allegations raised in the Title IX complaint filed against the University of Mary Washington, which we understand the Feminist Majority Foundation funded and recklessly publicized. As an initial matter, we were surprised to learn that you scheduled a press conference on May 7 to publicize the allegations in the complaint, particularly because we had already scheduled to meet with you on June 3 to discuss concerns raised by student members of Feminists United on Campus ("FUC"). You did not inform us of your intent to hold such a press conference. Instead, you sought media attention to publicize the fact of the filing of – and the irresponsible allegations in – the complaint. It is regrettable that you chose to preempt the opportunity to meet with me to gather information to assess the concerns being raised by a handful of UMW students.
The primary premise of the complaint is that UMW "ignored" students' concerns regarding comments made on the social media app Yik Yak. That allegation is demonstrably false. With the recent rise in popularity of this app, which allows anonymous postings by individuals within a 10-mile radius, UMW and colleges across the United States have been struggling to balance their utmost concern for the safety and welfare of students with the First Amendment rights of anonymous posters. UMW has met this challenge head on. As you know, I have had more than one in-person meeting with FUC’s leadership to discuss their concerns. We have consulted with legal counsel on permissible actions we might take to limit Yik Yak’s impact on campus. We have worked extensively with our Title IX coordinator to facilitate an open dialogue on campus among students regarding sexual assault and harassment. We provided extra security – including a campus escort – for an FUC member who reported comments that could be considered a true threat. In late March, we sent a campus-wide email reminding all students that the University takes seriously any threats and encouraging even anonymous ones to be reported to Campus Police and to our Title IX officer. We received no reports after this reminder. We also encouraged reporting threats directly to Yik Yak.
Although I understand that FUC may be upset that UMW has not ceded to its demands to ban Yik Yak from campus, it is important to understand that as a public university, UMW is obligated to comply with all federal laws – not just Title IX. The First Amendment prohibits prior restraints on speech, and banning Yik Yak is tantamount to a content-based prohibition on speech. (And in any event, banning Yik Yak from UMW’s network would be ineffective because students could still access the app using their personal wireless data plans.) I trust that FUC and the Feminist Majority Foundation – two groups that regularly exercise their civil right to petition the government and engage in protected First Amendment speech – understand and appreciate these concerns.
Indeed, the majority of the offending Yik Yak comments submitted with FUC’s complaint demonstrate the point. Most were reactions to an op-ed piece that then-FUC president, Paige McKinsey, wrote, submitted, and had published in the UMW student newspaper. In that op-ed, Ms. McKinsey asserted that there was an "insidious misogyny and hatred very much alive at UMW." In support of that position, she cited the effort by some students to establish a Greek system on campus and the actions of certain members of the men’s rugby club in singing an obscene chant at an off-campus party. Ms. McKinsey is the only student referenced by name in any of the Yik Yak comments included with the complaint, and those comments primarily refer to the opinions she expressed in her public statement. Some of the Yik Yak comments were certainly offensive and appear alarming in isolation, but must be placed in context. In particular, two of the comments highlighted in the complaint (and repeated most often in the press) are a direct quote from a sketch by the comedy group Whitest Kids U Know and a paraphrase of dialogue by a character on the television show “American Horror Story: Freak Show.” In the single instance where Yik Yak commenters suggested that concerns be addressed directly to Ms. McKinsey at a public meeting where she was scheduled to speak, UMW made specific arrangements for campus police to escort Ms. McKinsey throughout the evening in question, although she did not request such protection from Campus Police
Moreover, UMW does not have the legal authority to demand that Yik Yak provide the names and contact information of the posters of offensive material. Yik Yak’s policy is to cooperate with law enforcement professionals investigating actionable threats, but Yik Yak will not disclose user account information unless required by law to do so. In addition, Yik Yak does not require users to provide their real names, phone numbers, email or mailing addresses, or other identifying information, so any ability to track down posters to hold them personally accountable is limited.
By far, the most troubling aspect of FUC’s and the Feminist Majority Foundation’s complaint is the implication that there is a connection between the concerns raised by members of FUC and the murder of Grace Mann. Grace’s death was a terrible tragedy, but it is irresponsible for FUC and the Feminist Majority Foundation to opine that it was related to the rise in explicit and offensive comments on Yik Yak. Ms. Mann was killed in her off-campus house, and her housemate has been arrested for the murder. The housemate is a 31-year-old part-time student who returned to UMW to complete his degree after an eight-year absence. And contrary to misinformation in the media, the suspect in Grace’s death was not a member of the current rugby club (and had not been a part of that club since 2006), nor does it appear that he was friends with members of the current rugby team. Moreover, prior to Ms. Mann’s death, UMW received no reports of threatening or inappropriate behavior by the housemate since his return to campus.
Although Ms. Mann was involved with FUC, neither Ms. Mann nor any member of FUC reported to Campus Police or University administrators that she was a target of any anonymous threats on Yik Yak. To date, we have not identified any such threat. Furthermore, Ms. Mann's role as a student leader allowed her to develop a close personal relationship with our Title IX coordinator and with UMW's Dean of Students. Indeed, they were both invited to speak at her funeral and were honored to do so. Had Grace felt scared or threatened in her last semester on campus, she never mentioned as much to either of these individuals.
Other than the fact that Ms. Mann’s housemate played rugby eight years ago, and Ms. Mann was a member of FUC, the Feminist Majority Foundation and FUC have not identified any evidence that Ms. Mann’s death is linked in any way to her activities with FUC – much less that it is related to threatening posts on Yik Yak. Unfortunately, this unsubstantiated connection has attracted much attention from the media. But at the end of the day, pursuing a media campaign based on speculation is likely to undermine FMF's and UMW’s mutual goal of affecting positive change.
UMW is committed to fostering a supportive, safe and positive environment for all of our students – men and women alike. The reprehensible and offensive comments posted on Yik Yak are inconsistent with UMW’s values. Nevertheless, as we have seen recently with other institutions, the publication of unsubstantiated allegations and false narratives hurts not only the reputation of the affected institutions but also the reputation of the proponents who fail to investigate before taking their concerns public. And in this case, the speculative connection FUC and the Feminist Majority Foundation claim exists between Grace Mann's death and Yik Yak commenters spreads misinformation, and worse yet, it adds undue pain for the grieving Mann family.
In the future, I encourage you to explore fully the allegations you hear from students before you initiate a highly-publicized media campaign with unsubstantiated claims and misinformation. In addition to the electronic copy of this letter, a hard copy has been mailed to your office.
Richard V. Hurley
President, University of Mary Washington