It was a lame joke. It was racist. It was offensive. And to add insult to injury, it had already been done before, and so wasn’t even novel. But Kansas State University student Jaden McNeil made it anyway.
Get it? George Floyd was murdered, which was the only way to keep a black man from using drugs. Sick burn, Jaden, who describes himself as the founder and president of America First Students. What’s a state university to do with such a blithering asshole?
University officials have said they are exploring their options for action after the tweet. University President Richard Myers said Friday that “divisive statements do not represent for the values of our university.”
The problem is that the options available are limited. This is a public university and cannot, as such, deny this dumb kid his right to make a bad joke. The First Amendment applies, and despite all the important people on twitter explaining that the hate speech isn’t free speech, it is. Even if you use 10,000 words to explain why this was the most racist, most offensive, stupidest joke ever, it’s still protected speech. Indeed, there was once an organization that would fight for civil rights and stand up for the speaker of the worst possible words. Unfortunately, it no longer exists, although the name was bought out at a moral bankruptcy sale.
But the university’s limits aren’t of much concern to the football team.
Kansas State football players say they will boycott all team activities until administrators create a policy that would allow a student to be expelled for “openly racist, threatening or disrespectful actions.”
It would be a perfectly fine demand, but for the fact that it’s legally impossible to accomplish.
“We are demanding that Kansas State University put a policy in place that allows a student to be dismissed for displaying openly racist, threatening or disrespectful actions toward a student or groups of students,” the players said in the letter they posted. “We have resolved that we cannot play, practice or meet until these demands are heard and actions taken. We love Kansas State, but we must stand together and protect all students moving forward.”
In a sense, it’s a lot like civil disobedience. They feel strongly enough about their convictions to pay the price, in this case not having a football team, if and when there might be football again given that team activities have been suspended due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Their motives are commendable. Their willingness to suffer the consequences are principled.
Their threat, however, was foolish. It’s no more lawful for Kansas State to expel McNeil (or any other miscreant who says such things) for his exercise of free speech, even if it is racist and disrespectful. Curiously, the team included the word “threatening” in its demand, which the words are not. Rather, the chaos theory view of hate speech is that any words deemed bad make others “feel unsafe,” which is more about other students’ supposed feelings than the words. That’s just not how words work.
Nor are the football players, nor anyone else at Kansas State, without an alternative recourse to expulsion should a student utter words that offend them. Shun the kid. Call him an insulting name. Sit next to him in class with halitosis and discuss one’s world view. At length. Better still, explain why his words were wrong, racist and offensive.
The football coach might recognize the quandary his team created by its demand.
Late Sunday, coach Chris Klieman tweeted his support: “Racism is NOT welcome at KSTATE now or in the future. … I am excited to help every player unite for the solution NOW, so that that we can come together stronger than ever. Black Lives Matter.”
Coach Klieman was right to back his team in general, and was right to support the position that “racism is NOT welcome at KSTATE.” But he also slipped in an opening, to help his team “unite for the solution NOW” (he’s a football coach, so he can be forgiven his use of ALL CAPS) rather than parrot their demand for expulsion.
Do the members of the football team really want to sit out their season? Do they want to back off their demand and look as if they’ve lost the battle over racism, or worse, given up? Whoever came up with the idea that to demand a very specific solution, expulsion, made a tactical mistake.
As these are college students, it’s unsurprising that they were unfamiliar with the scope of the First Amendment, with the legal duties of KSTATE to adhere to its students’ free speech rights. It’s also unsurprising, given the way in which students and too many of their professors discuss speech that they were unaware of the fact that hate speech, whatever they believe it to be, is free speech.
Is there anything to be done by Kansas State to address the outrage caused by McNeil’s twit? Probably not, or at least not lawfully. Maybe the college will expel him and take the hit in a subsequent lawsuit. That too smacks of civil disobedience, although there is no virtue to be found in a public institution deliberately violating the Constitution.
Or, it can tell the football players that it’s in complete agreement with their cause, their views and their feelings, so football will be canceled at Kansas this year. Who wins?