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George Washington University Makes Racist Mistake, But Blames and Bans Student
Jewish Student Barred from Passover Observances on Campus, Could Sue University For Defamation and Other Civil Torts
Campus officials, mistaking an ancient Indian symbol representing peace, prosperity, and other virtuous qualities for a Nazi swastika symbolizing racism and hate, blamed the Jewish student who posted it on the bulletin board of his own largely-Jewish fraternity, claiming incorrectly that it was in fact a swastika which expressed "bigotry and hatred," and strongly suggesting that his act might constitute a "hate crime."
But even ten minutes of investigation on the Internet would have revealed that the Indian religious symbol posted by the student was as different in appearance, as it is in its symbolism, from the Nazi swastika.
"The one Jewish student who saw the symbol could, of course, be excused for temporarily mistaking it for a Nazi symbol signifying racial hatred for Jews - although, once the facts were pointed out to him, he and the Jewish brothers in his fraternity no longer feel that the student who posted the symbol had any malicious, much less racist, intent.
But there is no excuse for a major university, with vast resources including professors who teach Eastern religions, not only to make the same initial mistake, but then to not only refuse to correct it as the truth undoubtedly became known to them, but also to keep punishing the student, says Banzhaf. To this day they are still referred to the symbol as a swastika, which it clearly it is not.
It’s as if a Black student was going to be expelled for using the word “niggardly”
Moreover, the University issued a written statement strongly suggesting that the student may have committed a "hate crime." But for reasons spelled out in greater detail by GWU Law Professor Jonathan Turley, there could be no "hate crime" because there was no underlying crime which was committed, with or without hate. A "hate crime" is simply an ordinary crime like assault or arson which is committed because of hatred based on race or similar factors, notes Banzhaf.
Moreover, a fraternity brother who posts a symbol on his fraternity's bulletin board, whether it was a swastika or an Indian religious symbol, commits no crime, so it cannot possibly be a crime of hate, explains Banzhaf. Generally, posting symbols which are hateful in nature is not a crime, he says, noting numerous court decisions involving burning crosses, vile signs directed at the families of U.S. solders killed in battle, or even swastikas worn by men marching in Nazi uniforms.
Suggesting that someone committed a crime can make a university, and even its officials, liable for defamation, false light, intentional interference with existing contractual advantage, and other serious civil torts, says Banzhaf, who teaches Torts among his other courses at the law school.
If the university knew or should have known that what it was saying was false - i.e., that the student had posted a “swastika,”
Indeed, says Banzhaf, accusing a Jewish student of committing a crime motivated by hatred against Jews - including his family, the members of his overwhelmingly Jewish fraternity, the large Jewish community on campus etc. - would obviously cause him very serious harm. This is on top of banning him from campus, threatening him with arrest, forcing him to fall behind in his course work by prohibiting him from attending his scheduled classes, and even barring him from the many Passover observances on campus.
The reasons for this unusual behavior by GWU - not only making a mistake about the symbol but then refusing to correct it, suggesting that a Jewish student at a largely-Jewish fraternity acted out of a hatred of Jews and expressed bigotry and hatred, arguing that he should be expelled at a hearing next Monday for “violation of law,” interference with university functions,” and even “discrimination,”
In its most recent edition, it noted that President Steven Knapp’s response to the earlier posting of real swastikas on campus had been strongly condemned by a Jewish group for being insufficient - indeed some 20 organizations demanded an apology - and that he was now taking a stronger approach which it called “crisis communications.”
In what obviously wasn’t simply a coincidence, the article reported that the new head of “GW’s communications team, Vice President for External Relations Lorraine Voles, came to the University with two decades of crisis communications experience . . . Voles has transformed the messaging strategy during her seven years at GW . . . The office has led the response to eight student deaths since January 2014 and helped the University weather two different admissions scandals.”
Perhaps in seeking to appear tougher on hate symbols, and to appease Jewish critics of its earlier handling of swastikas on campus, the University has made a mistake and overreacted to this most recent incident, suggests Banzhaf.
Even if both the student and the University made mistakes, it seems that now would be a good time for corrections to be made and apologies offered where appropriate. What better way to honor the spirit of celebration and joy represented by Passover as it is celebrated on our campus.
NOTE - This document contains and reflects only the view of John Banzhaf, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the George Washington University, or any other institution, organization, or individual. It was prepared solely by John Banzhaf.