by Jacob Bruggeman

Most of us probably remember the ultimate form of primary school discipline: expulsion. My colleague Jordan Poyner’s reflection from last week, “Love and Punishment,” got me thinking about the meaning and prevalence of this extreme form of punishment in our schools, and how its use may well undermine the purpose of educational institutions.

Used in response to serious breaches of a school’s rules and regulations, or in response to equally egregious violations of the law, expulsion is not a common type of punishment, nor should it be. Because of its finality, expulsion–when introduced as either an option on the disciplinary table or a verdict to take home to mom and dad–electrifies the conversation, calling all involved or interested individuals to question the use of this seldom seen breed of exile.

There are, of course, particularly harmful actions that justify expulsion (making bomb threats and repeated bullying for instance).Yet there are instances of harmful speech, emotional affronts, and other kinds of both verbal and non-verbal intimidation that aren’t so cut and dry. Such actions are afloat in the grey area of free speech vs. hate speech, a nebulous, never-ending and often dead end debate over the primacy of speech over the harm it causes, or vice versa.  

Today, discussions of expulsions in speech-related cases are becoming more common, especially on college campuses. At my school, Miami University of Ohio, the administration and student body are currently engaged in a discussion of this very nature. The current debate was initially driven by the actions of a Miami sophomore, Thomas Wright, who used a racial slur in a group message and, after being both reprimanded by the University and publicly shamed by the student body, “jokingly referenced the incident in a Tinder conversation with another Miami student.” [1] Obviously, Wright is a downright dumbass. Wright, along with another student who posted a problematic photo on the area Snapchat, have energized a new wave of student protests. The repeat-offender nature of this case, coupled with a small but detectable outrage among the student body, has led to student requests for expulsion.

Despite my disgust with the individuals responsible for these acts–and more importantly, the harm they caused–I can’t get past my inclination that instead of beginning with the uncompromising response of “they’ve got to go,” we ought to start with: “they’ve got to learn.” Naturally, repeat offenders must be treated differently, but we can’t simply dispose of them. Making the individuals in question other people’s problems is no way to problem-solve—pushing trouble out of sight and out of mind serves to perpetuate, rather than resolve the issue.

Expulsion is a process of punishment in which the simplest solution is invoked: we’re done here, we don’t have to deal with you, pack your bags. But doesn’t a university–an institution dedicated to learning and personal growth–have a responsibility to educate its students? I fear that instead of utilizing this incident to educate the entire student body about the problematic nature of the actions and comments of the few–and thus attempting to reform students’ views of race to fit within a more socially aware and tolerant world–we are abdicating the old model of the university. In that model, the university serves as a place in which students are challenged and learn to challenge themselves, a space in which they learn and explore.

While Miami cannot simply treat intolerant acts as incidents of unseemly free speech, the college must not make a habit of handling each case of intolerant, harmful speech with expulsion. Speedily summoning and dismissing the individuals in question will neither work to resolve their alleged racism nor will it produce a more aware and just campus culture. In fact, such administrative action may well make more of these stupid, harmful comments and this downright dumb Snapchat than is desirable. Dismissal is likely to do more harm than good by (1) creating a polarized campus climate in which more harmful things might be both done and said, and by (2) drawing national attention to campus from groups on both sides, thus further polarizing the student body and making both courses and extracurricular activities into venues for extended, exasperating arguments.

True, Miami University cannot maintain its “we know, this is bad” breed of inaction, but passion cannot sustain university policy. So, what is to be done? As in most speech-related cases, those interested in answering this question must accustom themselves to ambiguity and realize that there is no cure-all, done-in-a-day solution–no matter how complex or detailed. Instead, let’s reorient ourselves to the institutional mission of the university: to educate. From that common ground we might engineer creative, transformative, and non-expulsive solutions to the serious issue of free speech and hate speech on college campuses.

Jacob Bruggeman is a junior at Miami University studying history, political science, and English literature. 

Notes:

[1] “Students Speak out against Racism at Miami.” The Miami Student. March 28, 2018. Accessed April 04, 2018. https://miamistudent.net/students-speak-out-against-racism-at-miami/.