Incidents of hate speech at USC raise concerns about diversity and inclusion.

By Natalie Schreyer

As he sat in the courtyard of his apartment complex on the night of March 6, University of Southern California student Ivan Tsang had three raw eggs thrown at him and heard racial slurs coming from the balcony, according to a USC Department of Public Safety log and a statement from the university’s Vice President for Student Affairs.

Tsang recounted the incident on his Facebook page, noting he came to USC from Hong Kong, “hoping to settle in a much more contemporary and diverse community.”

When she heard about the incident, USC sophomore Sonali Seth, editorial director of the Daily Trojan student newspaper, said “it was almost like my heart was hurting.”

This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened on the USC campus. Last fall, USC’s undergraduate student body president, Rini Sampath, said she was walking down the street and heard a student shout a racial slur at her from a window of his fraternity house, according to a post on her Facebook page. He then threw a drink at her and her friends. Sampath’s experience was widely publicized in newspapers such as The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

As an Indian-American, this hit close to home for Seth.

After this incident, students rallied to pass a campus climate resolution to promote tolerance and acceptance in the university environment.

Christina Gutierrez, vice president of Graduate Student Government at USC and a member of the school’s diversity task force, emphasized the importance of prevention over reaction. As an author of the resolution passed by both the undergraduate and graduate student governments last October, she and the other student authors made recommendations to the administration such as the expansion of campus cultural centers, diversity training programs for faculty and student leaders, and an annual campus climate survey.

“We’re tired of just having conversations,” she said.

Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel and director of the Civil Rights Policy Planning Center at the Anti-Defamation League, stressed the value of training programs. Students such as resident assistants may not have the specialized skills necessary to confront bias incidents and hate, and that is why giving them diversity training is so important, Lieberman said. The Anti-Defamation League’s program, “A Campus of Difference,” provides anti-bias education to students.

The best way to respond to hate speech is with better and more persuasive speech, Lieberman said. People must be willing to speak out against discriminatory language, even if they are not the target of a verbal attack.

“Words totally matter,” he said.  

“Hate speech is free speech.”

How to combat hate speech?

Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, but fighting words, which are highly likely to provoke a violent response from the recipient, are not. It is difficult to predict what constitutes fighting words, although at its core fighting words are defined by the likelihood that the speech would incite violence, said Melora Sundt, a professor of clinical education at the USC Rossier School of Education.

Michelle Deutchman, western states counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, prefers not to frame the debate as a competition between free speech and hate speech. Fundamentally, “hate speech is free speech,” she said.

The ultimate remedy for hateful thoughts and ideas is education, Deutchman said.

In its definition of a hate crime, the FBI is careful to note that “hate itself is not a crime.” To constitute a hate crime, the act must involve a criminal offense such as assault.

“Speech that is bigoted or biased should not be criminalized,” Lieberman said.

A private university like USC is not bound by the First Amendment, and can therefore penalize hate speech on its campus.

However, universities have historically represented the open exchange of ideas. The effort to preserve freedom of speech while maintaining an inclusive campus climate puts universities “in a bind,” American University associate professor John C. Watson said.

When hate hits close to home

When Seth heard about what happened to Tsang, she realized the USC campus hadn’t come as far as she originally thought.

The accused student in the Tsang case was also Asian, a police detective told the Los Angeles Times.

Seth said she fears that the racial identity of the aggressor will cause some to dismiss the incident as a mere joke between two Asian students. It is important that incidents of bias between members of the same racial group gain visibility to foster a more broad campus dialogue, she said.

A shared racial background “does not necessarily cancel out the bias,” Watson said.

The wide reach of hate speech

Incidents of hate speech causing uproar on campuses is not unique to USC.

A race-based act at San Jose State University, which went to court, led to three students being convicted of battery in February, although not hate crimes, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

In 2013, the white students targeted their African-American roommate, harassing him with slurs and hooking a bike lock around his neck.

In March, two students at Northwestern University were charged with a hate crime and vandalism for spray painting swastikas and slurs against African-Americans and gays inside a chapel at the university, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Other incidents have occurred at Cal Poly, the City University of New York, and the University of California-Davis, among others.

“Words totally matter.”

When is hate speech a hate crime?

After investigating Tsang’s incident, the Los Angeles Police Department decided not to pursue his case as a hate crime.

Seth disagrees. To her, if an incident like this is not treated as a crime, it sets a precedent for how other cases will be adjudicated.

“It sends the wrong message,” she said.