Last Thursday, Chuck Ross of the Daily Caller News Foundation broke the story that a number of supposed racial incidents at Oberlin College in Ohio this spring were, in fact, a hoax. Oberlin certainly took the incidents seriously, even canceling classes on March 5 to convene a “day of solidarity.” However, Oberlin city police reports obtained by Ross made it clear that at least some of the material that had Oberlin up in arms, including a large swastika banner that was hung in the science center under cover of night, was in fact done by one or two Oberlin students as a “joke/troll to get an overreaction, in the context of the racist crap that has been going on on campus.”
As an example of joking or “trolling,” the latter of which is loosely defined as “deliberately provoking people in order to get an angry response,” putting up a swastika banner, hanging up anti-Muslim flyers, printing out “niggermania” cards, etc. is in spectacularly bad taste. It’s not funny, it helped put the entire Oberlin community in an uproar, it alarmed many students and faculty members, and it’s morally obtuse.
At the same time, though, the police report seems to suggest that the students responsible were not racists or neo-Nazis, which calls Oberlin’s own actions into question as well. Why didn’t Oberlin administrators come forward when this was discovered and let its students (and the national media, which thoroughly covered the incidents) know that, rather than suffering through an epidemic of racism, Oberlin might in fact be suffering through a series of cruel pranks? The local police knew that at least some of the incidents were fakes by March 1, several days before the college canceled classes. Why leave students in an unnecessary state of trepidation? One would think Oberlin would be more than happy to inform its students and the public that things weren’t as bad as they seemed.
Oberlin is not the only campus that has suffered in recent times from hate incident hoaxes. New examples seem to pop up every year, sometimes more than once. Earlier this year, a student at the University of Wyoming was charged with reporting to police that she had been threatened with rape online — a threat that police later determined she made herself. Last year, at Montclair State University in New Jersey, two students who reported racist graffiti written on the door of their dorm room were charged with “making false reports, criminal mischief and disorderly conduct” when police determined that they themselves were the perpetrators. And in 2011, a University of Virginia law student admitted to fabricating a story about campus police officers harassing him because of his race. The list goes on and on. One of the weirdest in memory happened in 2004, when a Claremont College professor savagely vandalized her own car with racist and anti-Semitic graffiti.
Why does this keep happening? The sad truth is that students (and professors) commit these hoaxes because they know that they can make a political statement or at least get a major reaction out of their college campuses with very little relative effort. As we saw, Oberlin canceled classes and held a “day of solidarity” after its hoax incidents took place. The hoax at the University of Wyoming resulted in a “rape culture” protest and various statements of support from university administrators. Montclair State’s hoax took place on the same day as as the university held a “unity rally” against alleged threats to gay and lesbian students. Claremont College canceled classes and held a rally in support of the supposedly targeted professor. UVA’s reaction was comparatively calm, but the police chief declined to take any steps against the student who falsely accused his officers of harassment.
Economists and parents alike know that you get more of the behavior you decide to reward. If your goal is to make a political point about discrimination, or simply to rile people up, creating a racial issue on campus is a surefire method to do so. This does not escape the notice of students, as demonstrated by the Oberlin case, where the “trolling” student told police that he did what he did precisely because he knew there would be an “overreaction.” Many students have wished ever since they were young that they could cancel classes when they wanted a day off. Now, too often, our colleges are willing to make that possible.
More alarmingly, since people have a tendency to remember the first reports of alleged crimes, while many fewer are likely remember which ones turned out to be a hoax, these incidents bolster the arguments of would-be censors for greater speech restrictions on campus. Even now, more than 62 percent of schools ban speech that is protected by the First Amendment in the larger society, and schools seem to be teaching students that censorship is the morally right choice. Faced with a giant swastika banner hanging in an academic building, it’s natural for students to want to grasp at any tool that would help make that symbol go away. The philosophical case for free speech — a case the vast majority of Americans find persuasive on a day-to-day basis — can seemingly fade in importance when people come face-to-face with a historical symbol of evil. The impulse is to get rid of that symbol, whatever the cost.
But banning “hateful” speech is simply the wrong way to go about working against hate. It drives those who engage in such speech underground, where they cluster with others who hold similar views and therefore rarely hear views with which they disagree. It also hides real problems that may exist — after all, if the Nazi Party or Jim Crow is establishing a toehold at Oberlin, isn’t it critically important for people at Oberlin to know that? As Boston civil liberties lawyer (and co-founder of my organization, FIRE) Harvey Silverglate says, “I want to know who the Nazis in the room are so I know who not to turn my back on.” It’s critical that our colleges not let hate crime hoaxes fool them into giving up freedoms for an illusion of security.