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Words matter

Dear University of Maryland community:

The joys of spring break do not erase the pain all of us have felt in the past few days. It was caused by the revelation of an email that one of our students, a fraternity member, wrote last year. The sexist, racist, and misogynist message, which also disparaged consent in sexual conduct, has provoked angst and anger on our campus and beyond. Now, we must work to undo this damage, promote healing, and do justice.

Our Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct, in concert with our Police Department, is conducting a thorough investigation to determine all the facts in the case. They are proceeding with all deliberate speed, in accordance with applicable laws and policies.

"The history of liberty has been the history of procedural safeguards," wrote Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Process is as important as outcome. Justice rushed is justice compromised. 

There are gray areas where competing rights and values clash. As president, it is my responsibility to see that they are all taken into account in addressing this case.

Speech that demeans, dehumanizes, and elicits fear in others is "hate speech." It violates the fundamental right to human dignity: every person—regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation—has the right to be included and respected as a member of our society. It causes personal and collective harm.

Free speech is also a fundamental right in our democracy. It is reflected in the adage "I condemn what you say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." Not sanctioning speech that is odious and hurtful is a price that we pay to live in a free society. We fight speech with more speech.

As there is no exact moment between night and day, a thin, gray line separates free speech from hate speech. Our assessment of this case will call for careful judgment, taking into account the circumstances, intent, and time of this email and its impact over the past 15 months. We are also mindful of First Amendment jurisprudence, which recognizes that no right is so absolute as to trump all other rights. 

Meanwhile, as we investigate this case, we must also act so that our entire University community learns from this incident: Reaffirm principles of civil discourse; safeguard intellectual and personal safety; promote free and open dialogue; strengthen community resiliency; build bridges rather than walls or moats between different groups.

We are not alone. In the past year, many universities have been roiled by overt racism and sexism in Greek life, mainly in fraternities. Of course, to fault an entire population for the words or deeds of one individual or a few is unfair. But these incidents do not occur in a vacuum. The challenge is not only changing individual hearts and minds. It is changing organizational culture.

Fraternities and sororities have a valued place in student life at our University. I am pleased to see that, already, the presidents of our Greek Associations have issued public statements calling for unity of purpose across racial and gender lines.

The Inter-Fraternity Council: asked its 2,200 members to "stand up now" to counter the "racist, violent, and hateful" words of "one student."

National Pan-Hellenic Council: "This email attacked the values and beliefs of everyone in our Greek community...We must stand up in solidarity against hate..."

Multicultural Greek Council: "Where we should see unity, we see segregation .... We cannot let one incident divide our community ...."

Panhellenic Association: "It is our responsibility as brothers and sisters to hold one another accountable and to a higher standard .... How we handle hardships and what we learn from them will define us more than the incidents themselves."

Their words are wise and resonant.

In my Twitter chat last week that reached over one million Twitter accounts, the president of our Student Government Association asked if I would participate in educational forums on campus related to this email incident. I tweeted back: "Yes, absolutely." 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that." I believe that education is that light. 

Once classes resume, I will meet with leaders of some student organizations, including the SGA president. I will also meet with the University Senate executive committee. My purpose is to seek their guidance and engagement to broaden our boundaries of inclusiveness. 

Together, we shall make our campus community a more perfect union. I ask each of you to do your part to make this a teachable moment. 

Wallace D. Loh
University of Maryland