May 11, 2022
From Idavox

Over a decade ago, MSU students complained about abuse from white nationalist classmates. The school ignored them.

This piece is the first chapter within a larger academic thesis on the history of MSU YAF titled: “When Hate Had a Home Here: MSU Young Americans for Freedom, The FBI, and the Emergent Alt-Right

Jack Wheatley

It’s been over 15 years since the infamously planned “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” spurred uproar on Michigan State’s campus by white nationalist Kyle Bristow and his chapter of Young Americans For Freedom (YAF) in 2006. That event, and several others, led to a complaint by a group of students that prompted the University’s Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives to investigate YAF and the College Republicans for allegations of whether they violated the school’s anti-discrimination policy (ADP).

In the spring of 2008, the school exonerated the group’s behavior. One month later, the FBI and University’s campus police spied on Bristow and the MSU YAF chapter for potential terrorist activity, as uncovered documents detail. A recent analysis of the report and the context in which this behavior was taking place raises important questions about why the University exonerated a group identified as a hate group, the first student-based group of its kind in the country to be designated as such by the SPLC. Today, two leading members of the group have become influential within the former Alt-Right and white nationalist movements.

The underlying question in this decision involved whether the importance of free, unfettered First Amendment protection on campus was more important than protections guaranteed to students to feel safe to learn and grow. In the MSU report, the school made its position clear, stating that “the facts alleged by the complainants do not constitute harassment or discrimination in violation of the ADP” and that a “pattern of prohibited harassment and discrimination” based on protected characteristics “is not supported by the evidence and the standards established under applicable case law and federal guidance” (OIII Report 3) 

However, a deeper look at the school’s reasoning behind this decision reveals both a systematic failure to correctly obtain relevant evidence and a concerted effort to both isolate and compartmentalize incidences of harassment and discrimination. This decision came two years after the planned “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” and numerous inflammatory and vicious attacks against marginalized groups on campus, much of which the report details. 

Today, alumni of MSU during YAF’s reign still carry the wounds of racist and bigoted abuse they experienced at the hands of students held unaccountable by their own University’s failings. 

 Following the outrage of the ‘Catch’ event and other activities by YAF, student activists whom the group had targeted filed a report with the University, and the wounds they detailed remain. One former student who had a changed perspective recently remarked that MSU YAF was “one of the reasons I left and never wanted to come back to State.” She said she “hated” her senior year: “I just couldn’t wait to leave.” Her experience isn’t different from others interviewed for this story. Yet, their trauma didn’t rise to the level of punishable action as the University saw it.

Utilizing the protections of the First Amendment as justification for the school’s decision, the University empowered YAF and others to seek institutional protections as a smokescreen for a broader white supremacist agenda. With our present desire for institutional accountability, the 2008 MSU report not only seems to fail to uphold school policy but actively played a role in protecting attacks on marginalized students. The episode raises an important question regarding how educational institutions weigh freedom of expression and student protection from discrimination and related trauma. How can students learn, share, collaborate and debate in a space where they feel unsafe?

These questions arose again in 2017 and 2018 in instances across the country. The self-proclaimed ‘leader’ of the Alt-Right, Richard Spencer, embarked on a nationwide speaking tour across college campuses to infiltrate “academic Marxist controlled territory” and spread white nationalist ideology into what he described as “the belly of the beast.” Spencer’s associate Cameron Padgett took to booking him across universities but met resistance from administrations. When rejected the ability to host Mr. Spencer, Kyle Bristow aided Padgett in suing several universities on free speech grounds. According to recent email correspondence with Bristow, “Padgett sued and/or threatened to sue Kent StateMichigan StateOhio StatePenn State, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Michigan, The University of Florida, and Auburn University.” 

“Defender of Western Civilization”

Declaring himself a “Defender of Western Civilization,” Kyle Bristow made his first appearance in campus politics in early 2006 when he became one of the first students in MSU history to be recalled from the University’s student government. His removal followed the release of his “13-pt plan” of action, which included, among other incendiary goals, eliminating representation for all minority advocacy groups and replacing it with a “Caucasian Caucus.” 

Soon after, Bristow took a leadership role within YAF and participated in an early event that would anticipate later activities. Celebrating a “Straight Pride Rally.” the group paraded through North campus holding signs reading “End Faggotry” and “Gays Spread AIDS.” Online within MSU YAF’s blog, the Spartan Spectator, Bristow and Jason Lee Van Dyke, a former MSU student notorious for his white supremacist provocations, often mused their disdain towards immigrants and non-white Americans and, in one instance, attempted to recruit members and spark controversy by promoting a “Koran Desecration Contest.” 

Van Dyke, while having been involved heavily in the online charades of MSU YAF, was never technically a member of the group, not as a student, that is. In 2001, Jason was suspended from the University on weapons and domestic abuse charges against his roommate, transferring to Texas to finish his schooling. It would be only later, in Law school, when Van Dyke would hear of Bristow’s activities at MSU and offer his support as a legal advisor to the group.

“I would check in on Michigan State University every now and then over the years because after what they did to me, I believed in karma. And I wanted to see if karma would ever come back to bite Michigan State. And I started reading about this guy named Kyle Bristow in the State News, who was part of the student government and was under attack for being conservative… (He communicated to Bristow that) ‘I was kind of your predecessor in all of this. Love what you’re doing. I think it’s hilarious. But be very careful with these people. And if you ever want to write to me, I’ll help you out.’”

Under Bristow’s leadership, MSU YAF became notorious for its increasingly extremist guest speaker invitations onto campus. Beginning with less controversial conservative opponents, affirmative action opponents, and anti-immigration at the start, pressure mounted on the University to take action once the group started hosting more blatantly white nationalist guests. “Strongest Skinhead of the Year” Preston Wiginton made appearances at MSU as well as Holocaust denier and British white-power activist Nick Griffin. Bristow planned, then canceled, a speaking engagement with Jared Taylor of American Renaissance, one of the nation’s leading white nationalist publications, which Kyle often contributed to while still in undergrad. 

A substantive portion of the school’s investigation surrounded the balance between students’ First Amendment protections and the protections for students against hate speech and harassment. Early in its report, the school observed that the ADP prohibitions “are not intended to abridge University Community members’ rights of free expression or other civil rights.” They added, “therefore necessary to take into consideration the First Amendment, applicable case law, and federal guidance relevant to the conduct that was the subject of the various complaints” (3).

* * *

MSU YAF, labeling themselves patriots and crusaders of Occidental culture, enthusiastically shared literature hailed by white supremacists such as the Camp of Saints by Jean Raspail and Death of the West by Pat Buchanan on their site, the Spartan Spectator. The Spectator first made its appearance on MSU’s campus in print form, following the ouster of Van Dyke from the campus publication, the State News. While in the James Madison College at the University, an institution also attended later by Bristow, Jason wrote conservative opinion pieces for the State News until his firing following a homophobic rant against MSU Pride 2000. For Van Dyke, the Spectator became a means to push back against the ‘establishment’ at MSU, and later he would gift it to Bristow as a blog for YAF’s bidding.

MSU YAF’s blog, the Spartan Spectator, featured much of the group’s hate speech online in the Spectator. Bristow, Van Dyke, and others cultivated a hyper-masculine cesspool on that site of early Alt-Right web activity spanning from racist shock-humor memes, attention-grabbing conspiratorial articles, and even individual targeting campaigns against fellow students of marginalized communities. They also used the site to promote many racist pseudoscientific online forums and publications like American Renaissance and VDARE. Today, such works often exist in screeds commonly central in pages-long manifestos articulated online by disaffected young white men, usually minutes before committing unthinkable acts of racial violence, like massacres in El-Paso, Texas, and Christchurch, New Zealand. In response, opposition blogs and Facebook groups gained momentum calling the group out on their actions and their relevance to the threat of white supremacy as a whole. 

Some of the most tumultuous events held by YAF were when the group would invite far-right guests to speak at MSU, a key YAF strategy cultivated early on. This tactic asserts the unfettered right to free expression of those invited to speak while shielding them from offensive behavior and harassment complaints. 

One of the most enthusiastic reactions from the student body arose during the event hosting Chris Simcox in 2007. Simcox, an anti-immigrant advocate and founder of The Minute Men militia group, spoke alongside another YAF guest, Preston Wiginton

Even before it began, students passionately protested the event against YAF’s anti-immigrant speaker. When Van Dyke, taking the stage, exclaimed, “I’ve got two words for you; work and soap,” it only exacerbated the tensions that had been growing. Van Dyke later remembered that his comment “was something that George Wallace had said to hippies in the cities.” Soon, the chants of the student activists began to drown out the words of Simcox and his allies. This led the police to start clearing the lecture hall of the protesters while leaving those in attendance, predominantly white, for the event untouched. MSU police arrested Five Mexican American individuals during the event. Footage uploaded to Youtube showed University police placing one student in a chokehold, a tactic the MSU police claim is against their code of conduct.

“Severe, Persistent, or Pervasive”

MSU’s 2008 report included all of these activities and various complaints made by individual students. The University’s guidelines for identifying such prohibited behavior established a significantly high bar. In order to find any instances of prohibited harassment, the grievances must provide evidence of a “hostile environment for the complainants… so severe, persistent, or pervasive” (4) that a reasonable person would find “that it deprives the complainants of access to the educational benefits or opportunities provided by the school” (5). It notes that “such conduct is evaluated on the ‘totality of circumstances’ surrounding each claim” (5). 

In its findings, the report claimed that none of YAF’s activities rose to the level of prohibited harassment and discrimination under the school’s policy. In a balancing act between punishable harassment and freedom of speech, the school asserted its support for the latter. 

In addition, the severity and persistence of the offenses are part of what must be considered: “The more severe an incident, the less necessary it is to show that the conduct persisted. The less severe an incident, the more important a showing of persistence becomes. A one-time incident or a few isolated incidents of offensive comments based on an individual’s or group’s race, national origin, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, or political persuasion will not be found to be ‘so severe’ that a hostile environment is created. Even if the conduct is not found to be severe enough to create a hostile environment, if the conduct is sufficiently persistent or pervasive a hostile environment is created and prohibited harassment under the ADP will be found” (5).

In the report, students charged YAF with various instances of harassment and abuse in violation of the ADP, and one category included the use of racial or ethnic slurs. MSU stated in the report that the allegations must be “sustained and nontrivial,” which express a “steady barrage” of insults based on one’s protected class, or more than “mere insults or name-calling” or “the mere utterance of an ethnic or racial epithet which engenders offensive feelings,” or “expression of views, words, symbols, or thoughts that someone found offensive” (6). In saying this, the school implicitly sanctioned a policy that permitted racial or ethnic slurs and epithets, as long as the school did not identify the behavior to be demonstrative of a pattern of abuse.

In analyzing this report, it’s difficult to overestimate the importance of examining the totality of the circumstances within each of these incidences of abuse. When addressing each allegation brought by complainants, the University made considerable effort to rhetorically and methodologically isolate the nature of each event from one another.

In the report, the University recounted repeated instances of racial harassment and discrimination by YAF. Nevertheless, it took great care to compartmentalize each incident as separate from one another to avoid demonstrating a larger pattern of abuse. Repeated instances of racial slurs and epithets are labeled as mere “name-calling” or characterized as “isolated slurs” (6). 

Additionally, the school noted that the scope of their investigation rests primarily on the “facts alleged by the complainants” (3), which, in scenarios where persistent harassment and discrimination may be present, places the high priority of evidence gathering on the students who were affected themselves. Because of this policy, the University’s investigatory office refrained from collecting and analyzing any additional evidence, whether reported by media or freelance watchdog organizations.

This rhetoric is consistent throughout the report, consistently weighing who deserved higher priority, the students facing abuse, or the abusers’ right to free speech. In the end, based on an incomplete evaluation of the evidence available to them, Michigan State sided with the latter. Throughout the investigation, it seems the University was less concerned about the potential for racial harassment and abuse against students and far more concerned about the possibility of a violation of the First Amendment. This was not because of their ardent support for students’ civil rights but their extreme fear of litigation. A closer look at both the decision-making process and the school’s written explanation for doing so demonstrates the University’s deeper and more concerning practice in investigating matters like this one.

While attempting to demonstrate an ethos of compassion toward victims of harassment and abuse, the MSU policy in practice illustrated a complicated and nuanced system. This system allowed groups like MSU YAF to exploit First Amendment protections at the hands of their peers.

The Survivors

Following Chris Simcox’s appearance on campus in the spring of 2007, an event co-sponsored by MSU YAF and the College Republicans, 30 students met with the University to raise their complaints. Eight students directly filed complaints with the school against the groups’ harassment online and in person. The two student groups faced multiple allegations of targeted verbal and online harassment, discrimination, and abuse against students of color and LGBTQ classmates. Asserting a pattern of vitriolic behavior that sparked fear and humiliation, students presented the school with photographic and material evidence from around campus and online that inspired fear and documented the targeted attacks directed at them.

One of the most challenging cases studied within this report to re-examine has been that of Sonia Díaz (for purposes of the student’s safety in this study, the names of students have been replaced with pseudonyms).

Today, Sonia is a mother working with child immigrants, but during her years at Michigan State, she was one of the most vocal activists opposing YAF and its speakers. In 2007, she was one of the handful of students who went to the University with her experiences of harassment and abuse in the hope of accountability. MSU let her down. In a recent interview, she recalled the campus-wide anxiety spurred by the canceled “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” event.

“People were uneasy, uncomfortable; all of a sudden, a lot of people were feeling unwelcome, unsure of where this was coming from, how, despite still being definitely an almost overwhelmingly white space, MSU did provide things for the CAMP (College Assistance Migrant Program) students, which most of us came through, and students groups like MEChA, even in these white spaces, and us having created and maintained our safe spaces, even in our safe spaces we weren’t feeling comfortable anymore, so it was a slap in the face, it was unacceptable.”

Díaz charged that YAF established a hostile environment, inhibiting students’ ability to learn and take advantage of educational opportunities at the University. She remembers the widespread fear felt by students of color on campus and identified another category of offense that appeared in the 2008 report: publicity efforts like club flyers and sidewalk chalkings. She recalled that the corridors of Michigan State had become littered with attacks and obscenities against marginalized students, an almost daily torrent of hate.

These more visible attacks, which forced their way into the mainstream of campus discourse, became the first to be reported to the University of YAF’s behavior. Students in the report described flyers distributed around campus and sidewalk chalkings as “disturbing.” They explained to the school they were feeling threatened and targeted as Mexican American students. These included sayings such as “Speak English” and “Deport Illegals,” as well as other, now-familiar mottos like “Build a Wall” (13, 17).

One flyer, with images from YAF’s blog, was distributed reading, “MSU Offers Doctorate in Savagery” (20), following the University’s announcement of a new doctoral program in Chicano and Latino studies. 

In its 2008 report, MSU questioned whether YAF was responsible for these incidents and reiterated a skeptical view about whether they were severe or persistent. The report states:

“The flyers around campus apparently intended to ridicule the new Chicano/Latino studies doctoral program really target Native American individuals (the flyers did not reference the Chicano/Latino studies program; nor did they identify who produced them). While clearly intended to ridicule and target the Native American community, the flyers did not rise to the level of noxiousness found in the case law. Therefore, the flyers do not, on their own, form the basis for racial or national origin harassment. This is particularly true since there was no evidence that YAF produced and distributed the flyers” (54).

Furthermore, The school’s report admitted that “Chalking the phrases ‘speak English,’ ‘Deport illegals,’ and ‘close the borders’ may have been intended to hurt and humiliate Mexican American students.” But MSU argued that “they could also be slogans endorsed by individuals who are simply expressing an opinion on the immigration debate and are certainly not, on their face, the type of noxious epithet based on national origin or race described in the case law” (54).

This section of the report offers a vital glimpse into the rhetorical and strategic framework employed by the school when attempting to downplay the severity of these instances. In this passage quoted, the University uses the phrase “on their own” (54) to question whether the flyers’ complaints form the basis for punishable harassment. In effect, the University considered these to be isolated from other incidents. Had this phrase been used sparingly, or only in instances where the abuse allegations were separate from each other, such finding would be appropriate. However, the school’s conclusions repeat the phrase, obfuscating a larger, more repeated pattern of behavior. Suppose each incident is isolated from a broader pattern. In that case, each can be dismissed as inoffensive and, therefore, outside the purvey of the University.

With the advent of a campaign of flyers and chalkings around campus, YAF’s public presence grew. Former students said they increasingly felt unsafe in classes and around campus—the school’s overriding concern for protecting the ‘marketplace of ideas’ exacerbated this uncertainty. None may better demonstrate the University’s priorities than that of the stated protection for students who wish to hurl racial slurs under free speech safety. For MSU states that respondents’ conduct is to be examined as “sustained and nontrivial” which consists of a “steady barrage of noxious epithets based on the protected categories, and not just “mere insults and name-calling” and “the mere utterance of an ethnic or racial epithet which engenders offensive feelings. Also, the conduct must surpass the ‘mere expression of views, words, symbols, or thoughts that some person finds offensive’” (6).

Following this procedure, one could assume the continuous stream of abuse allegations would lead the University to establish the presence of a hostile environment and recognize the basis to determine this behavior as sustained and nontrivial. Any reasonable individual examining the seemingly endless litany of abuse allegations outlined in this report would find more than enough evidence by this group to find harassment claims, especially analysis under a “totality of circumstances” (5). 

If ‘freedom of speech’ and the ‘marketplace of ideas’ were prioritized over a “totality of circumstances” (6) related to repeated racial and ethnic slurs and other attacks on students, Bristow’s ties to white supremacist and hate groups strained those priorities further. The fact that the Southern Poverty Law Center had listed MSU YAF as a hate group was duly noted in the report. However, that did not serve as criteria the school recognized:

“The fact that the Southern Poverty Law Center (‘SPLC’) named YAF on the MSU campus as a hate group is not determinative of a violation of the ADP. The SPLC made its determination of hate group status according to its own criteria and its own definition of a hate group. MSU is guided by federal harassment and discrimination law and must make its own determination according to the policy and the law” (57).

On the topic of Bristow’s white nationalist affiliations, the school added:

“Whether… YAF’s President has ties to a white supremacist group, as seen on Facebook is too attenuated to be considered evidence of harassment. Whether that is true or not, without more, it does not constitute a harassing act necessary for a finding under the ADP, by [REDACTED] or YAF” (58).

While it may certainly be true that a student’s outside affiliation with any extremist organization may not be recognized as an ‘act of harassment,’ the school’s stated policy to analyze all aspects of this behavior under a “totality of circumstances” (6) would seem to suggest it might be relevant, especially when seeking to understand the context and intent of this student’s actions.

As YAF’s antics changed through time, so did the allegations within the report. Evolving and connecting in consistency and cadence, YAF’s documented incidents of harassment shifted from more general outrage baiting to targeted personal harassment of individual students of color. YAF and Bristow’s connection to far-right organizations made that possible.

When Chris Simcox, founder of the anti-immigrant group the Minutemen, was invited to speak in 2007 by YAF, Sonia and another student reported that she received threatening emails from Simcox. In it, he invites them to “a reasoned discussion,” asking them to leave behind their group’s “racialist militant hate.” As a point of emphasis, Simcox included an image of a dead Mexican man “left behind by the coyote,” he said. “He was left to die by his own people” (13).

Díaz expressed to the school that she felt the email was “an indirect threat” leveled by Simcox “against her and the other protesters” (18), according to the school. In its report, the University made a note of adding: “She interpreted the email as a warning not to protest and states that, along with the pictures of the dead Mexican man, was an implied threat of violence against any Mexican Americans who were going to protest at the event” (18).

Regarding that email, which included an image of a dead Mexican man sent to Sonia, the University declared “the email does not constitute a threat on its face.” While Simcox’s missive “may have well been intended to intimidate and make a particular MSU student protester feel threatened,” MSU said it could be viewed as “expressing a legitimate political view regarding immigration in this country” because the email never directly threatened violence against her (58).

YAF’s escalating behavior came to the forefront when, at a YAF-hosted event with anti-immigrant congressman Tom Tancredo, Díaz remembered Kyle harassing her personally. She told the school that he said, “I’m proud that my grandfather took land from your grandfather” (16). The comment was included in the report and was confirmed to have been overheard by another student present. 

“This skinny little white kid, a normal little person walking around who doesn’t even look threatening by any means, and then he opens his mouth,” Sonia remarked, looking back. When asked if her experience with MSU YAF and the College Republicans affected her ability to concentrate on her schoolwork, she said it did.

“Oh yeah, definitely… I found myself skipping a lot of my classes, except for my Chicano studies classes, where I knew people, and I felt comfortable, and I felt like I was surrounded by a different environment than all the other classes. Because all of a sudden, in all my classes where I was the only Chicana, I felt threatened because I didn’t know who was spreading all this hate, who was calling people who look like me illegal immigrants and if I was gonna be part of this game, or what was gonna be next, and what happened next was, you know, way, way worse.”

What came next for Sonia is probably the most disturbing allegation investigated in this report. Before the event with Chris Simcox, YAF doxed her personal information, including her home address and telephone number, launching a new online offensive against her. Bristow and others had given her the title of “Leftist Freak of the Year” on their blog, ridiculing her and her transgender boyfriend with epithets, calling them “freaks,” and posting an “unflattering picture” of them to further their message, according to MSU’s report (17). YAF also listed her within their “Goon Gallery” on a sister blog, Save Our State, a separate anti-immigrant hate group where she received a slew of racist and nativist attacks. Some of them called her an “anchor babe” and complained, “it’s a shame she can’t be deported” (18). The report noted Sonia’s trauma, “She was in tears each time we met. She claims she was extremely fearful for her safety after discovering she had been individually targeted” (18).

Aside from the targeted individual students was the torrent of racial vitriol expressed online by YAF. Included in one racist post were Bristow’s own white nationalist fantasies. He wrote that “If Christopher Columbus didn’t bring civilization to America, the Indians would still be running through the forest in loincloths, scalping each other, shoving bones through their noses, worshipping (sic) pagan gods, doing human sacrifices to their ‘sun god,’ using human skulls as bowls and spreading syphilis” (20). 

Regardless of these escalating, interconnected efforts, the school downplayed the severity of his intent in this post: 

“The September 16, 2007 blog entry referring to the Mexican people as an ‘inferior culture’ and the September 27, 2007 posting referring to MSU’s doctorate program in Chicano/Latino studies as a doctorate in ‘savagery’ are offensive, derogatory slurs. Likewise, the September 15, 2007 post referring to ‘degenerate savages’ and threatening the return of Hernan Cortez is offensive and could be considered slurs. (See also attached references to certain Mexican-American students as ‘Savages’ on the Spartan Spectator) This type of conduct is similar in nature to the type of conduct the courts have considered in determining harassment where it is sufficiently persistent. However, the handful of posts that have been brought to our attention clearly fall within the isolated slurs category — and does not amount to a ‘steady barrage of opprobrious racial comments’ where the learning environment is ‘so heavily polluted with discrimination as to destroy the emotional and physiological stability’ of a student” (57). 

The terminology utilized in this passage is of great importance. The phrase “handful of posts that have been brought to our attention” (57) ties directly back to one of the main discrepancies in this investigation. Because of the school’s policy dictating that the evidence of abuse must derive solely from complainants, the school avoided many documented instances of abuse reported far and wide online and in the news. In addition, YAF’s methods made it harder to pinpoint them. One student in the report added that “YAF targets individuals based on [these] protected categories, but generally does so indirectly, through Facebook, the State News, and its website” (12).

One after the other, MSU examines allegations in this report in detail, and one after the other, the school labels them as isolated instances, making it increasingly more difficult to establish a larger pattern, let alone condemn and punish the behavior. On the topic of posts online, chalkings, and flyers, MSU wrote, “it does not amount to more than the ‘utterance of an ethnic or racial epithet which engenders offensive feelings.’” Additionally, “to establish a hostile environment case where the conduct consists solely of verbal conduct, the complainant must allege persistent conduct akin to an almost daily subjection to a barrage of offensive slurs and humiliating conduct” (59).

These tendencies appeared throughout the 2008 report. One transgender student targeted online said he was asked if they were “a boy or a girl” (76) by YAF members, alongside other slurs. The school stated that “being called ‘fag’ and ‘freak’” (76) are isolated incidents of name-calling. MSU made similar decisions surrounding Sonia’s complaints, saying that the “Leftist Freak of the Year” post calling her ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ fit squarely within the ‘name-calling’ category of conduct (77). Moreover, with phrases such as “burn all reds” and “smash left-wing scum,” the school stated that “on its face,” they were advocating for violence towards certain political groups. However, it was “determined that these two or three isolated incidents fall short of the required standard” (77). One student who wore a hijab had reported fearing for her safety after seeing “Kill Radical Muslims” chalked around campus, which the school described as “disturbing and threatening, but not enough to establish a hostile environment claim” (78) … “The chalking falls squarely within the OCR’s own description of the type of isolated conduct that falls outside actionable harassment” (78). Being mindful of First Amendment case law, the report added that “it is difficult to argue that this is more than an expression of an idea (albeit an offensive and threatening one to some)” (81). 

Another student, who identified as Mexican American, complained to the University about being called a “gangbanger” by a YAF guest on national television and a “spic” by YAF members at one event. The school called this “derogatory, hurtful, and offensive,” but because “the complainant had not alleged other conduct which targeted him personally, does not form the basis for harassment on the grounds of national origin discrimination” (79).

Given their abusive nature, the school’s determinations on the incidents that targeted Sonia personally are considerably worrisome. Included in this analysis were multiple instances of targeted harassment spanning from her reference in YAF’s racist online rants to her being doxed and followed home. The school wrote that “the evidence regarding the YAF member following” her “home, even if accepted as true, is not enough by itself to constitute a threat.” MSU went on to say that the incident was “a one-time event” that was “not sufficient to constitute a hostile environment” because of its indirect nature (58). When she was personally named in a September 2007 post calling Mexican people an “inferior culture,” a post which also described LGBTQ groups as “sexually deviant clubs that celebrate degenerate lifestyles,” the school decided “this conduct, while closer to the standard for establishing harassment, falls below the line between isolated offensive comments and harassment” (68). Though Sonia was personally attacked numerous times by YAF, the report noted that “this is not the type of sustained and nontrivial conduct made unlawful by Title VI or the ADP.” It added that “[i]t is offensive and cruel name-calling and immature behavior, but it does not form the basis for a national origin harassment claim under Title VI. The August 22 and September 16, 2007 posts are isolated, offensive slurs” (69).

The report said the incident in which MSU YAF doxed Sonia was “more serious.” Having included both name-calling and links to personal information about a student, “it is different having one’s personal information posted on a website that attracts those who may be prone to hate, and even be violent, towards individuals with opposing views.” However, MSU states that “when analyzed under the case law, even this conduct is not so egregious that it rises to the level of sustained or serious behavior constituting a hostile environment. It is a single incident, which is not comparable to the persistent conduct in the above-cited cases” (69).

Sonia recalled yet another incident that may be considered bizarre upon reflecting on these past circumstances.

“I don’t even know how it happened. But at some point, I got money in my account to move out of where I was living, to try to put a security deposit because I was getting off-campus. So at some point, Dr. June or somebody put money into my account so that I could move residences. It was a big deal….And that makes me angry that it was never acknowledged. It was just meeting after meeting of us sitting there with them, a lot of us crying, afraid to go home. And for them, it was just like, ‘Well, you know, we have to go through this process,’ and the process did nothing for us.”

* * *

It’s been over 15 years since this abuse began. The school’s decision to choose First Amendment speech protection over students’ safety has had lasting effects, not only on the alumni who bear the wounds but on the community and country, as a whole.

At the very end of the school’s report, again, the University brought back the issue of free speech. MSU wrote that while it found no violation of the school’s anti-discrimination policy, “we believe that the issues raised in these complaints present opportunities for additional education on the ADP and its impacts on the rights and responsibilities of community members, including individual students, registered student organizations, and faculty advisers” (82).

In the end, the school had made its decision: unfettered protections for students to hurl racial slurs, individually target and drive students out of their homes, and welcome those who wish to impose genocide and torture upon people of color and marginalized groups. That decision had a lasting impact. Not only did Kyle Bristow and Jason Lee Van Dyke leave Michigan State unscathed, but they left emboldened to finish the racist project they had started, and that’s precisely what they did.