10/06/2014 05:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2014

Rant in East Carolina Student Newspaper Spurs Racial Tension, Death Threats for Editor

An anonymous rant with racist overtones run in East Carolina University's student newspaper has triggered controversy, outside media coverage, a free speech debate, a campus-wide racial inequality panel and even death threats directed at the paper's editor-in-chief.

Named after the school's mascot, "Pirate Rants" is a regular feature run in The East Carolinian opinion section -- presenting a mix of "views, opinions and frustrations" from ECU students, faculty and staff. Each rant is submitted anonymously, subsequently appearing online and in print without outside vetting or editing (except for profanity and libel).

A submission in last week's edition of the paper, published atop a rundown of 16 other rants: "Will someone explain to me why there is no 'White Student Union?' ... I feel underrepresented."

The statement -- and the East Carolinian's decision to publish it -- have proven especially combustible. According to local news reports, some students consider it an attack on the university's Black Student Union. Others feel "the comment itself is asinine" and unworthy of being spotlighted in the ECU student newspaper of record.

East Carolinian editor-in-chief Jessica Richmond has received death threats in the rant's wake, including one that "called for her beheading by ISIS."

In local news media interviews and a separate 800-word editorial response, Richmond is defending the rant as nothing more than free speech in action. "I'm sorry that they were offended and that we should all be offended by that rant," she tells one area broadcast team, "but my publishing it was giving a voice to someone that their opinion is valid."

ECU student media director John Harvey: "You know, there were a lot of people that were upset that they read it, but what they should be upset about is the idea."

As Richmond writes similarly in an editor's note headlined "Concerning Pirate Rants":

"The Pirate Rant column is a public forum. It's meant to reflect the views, opinions and frustrations of the students, faculty and staff on this campus. The truth is that there is racism at this university. However, The East Carolinian did not create it, nor do we foster it. We hold a mirror on society when we publish public opinion. ... We cannot censor the pirate rants without getting rid of them completely. If The East Carolinian began censoring racist rants, we would then have to censor sexist rants, then underage drinking rants, then rants concerning administration at ECU, etc. Eventually Pirate Rants would all say, 'I love ECU' and read like a freshman orientation brochure."

At the close of her note, however, Richmond does leave open the possibility of eradicating the "Pirate Rants" section entirely -- asking readers if "this 50-year tradition has run its course." So far, in a poll on the East Carolinian homepage, roughly 90 percent of respondents have voted in favor of keeping it going.