Shippensburg University responded further Monday to calls to punish a student who recently posted a photo of herself on Instagram posing next to a sign that says “Black lives do not matter.”
A change.org petition calls for the SU administration to “take serious action against the student.” About 9,000 people signed the petition as of Monday afternoon.
Chief Diversity Officer Stephanie Jirard responded to the calls for action in an email sent to campus community members Jan. 29.
“There is no legal basis for a public university to punish members of our community for their opinions: It is illegal,” Jirard said in the email. “But there is a social justice imperative that calls us together to solve our community problems.”
Posters on social media continued over the weekend to advocate for more of a response from the university. On Monday afternoon, Jirard spoke to student media about the ongoing controversy.
“I cannot confirm nor deny whether any racist incidents are related to the criminal justice department,” Jirard said when asked about rumors surrounding the student’s major. “I can tell you that as a member of the criminal justice department, as a longtime member of the criminal justice field, we are not immune to the influences of society — be them good or bad. Generally, criminal justice has been a beacon of hope for so many. Given the current focus on current events, we indeed can do better in the intersection of race and justice. That is a fact.”
Jirard noted there have been calls for university officials to take action against the student through SU’s Student Code of Conduct. According to Jirard, the code of conduct is not applicable in situations where people make generalized statements that are hurtful and harmful to racial minorities.
“When there are global statements that people make, it’s not a threat or harassment because it's not directed at a specific person,” Jirard said. “So our student code of conduct, if you look... it talks about discrimination, harassment and a threat. It is all meant to address specific actions to specific people.”
Jirard responded to calls for expulsion or banishment by explaining that as a public university funded with tax dollars, SU legally does not have the same actions available to it as a private institution.
“A private institution is a corporation, much like Twitter,” Jirard said, noting the recent banning of former President Donald Trump from the platform for violating its user standards. “Private corporations can control whatever speech they want, they’re not the government.”
Jirard said calls for the university to make the student publicly apologize or take diversity classes also are not options for the situation. She said it would seem “punitive” to direct such a course of conduct for a “global statement.”
She noted previous racial incidents involving SU students that were deemed “actionable” were directed at a specific person. “According to the allegations of what this particular sign said, it's global and it’s general, so the law does not allow us to do more,” Jirard said.
“People are allowed and encouraged to express a variety of ideas and opinions and beliefs,” Jirard said. “When those opinions, ideas and beliefs are racially harmful, they still are opinions and beliefs that we as an education institution should address, in an educational way.”
Jirard hopes the university community can move forward by turning words of support into action. “Let Ship be that hub for you, the student that wants to translate words into action… to make Ship a better place,” Jirard said.
She added that university officials want to hear from students on how they want to help move forward. Jirard said she wants to create a mechanism in the Office of Equity, Inclusion and Compliance where students can direct their energies, through student-led activism, to move beyond platitudes to take on the systems in society that are a direct threat to Black lives.
“We should be educating people. When you come to Ship, you are not the same person when you leave,” Jirard said. “You have different experiences, you’ve had to meet people from different slices of life that you’ve never seen and you’ve grown in awareness in a way that is mostly beneficial.”
Jirard noted the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on in-person events like rallies and marches.
“Until we can come together, Zooms and town halls are all that we can do. Until the students come back to campus, this is the limit of our communication and activism,” she said.