A recent video of a white Florida International University (FIU) student singing the n-word caused a major backlash on social media and led some students to call for her expulsion, echoing the national outcry against racially insensitive speech on college campuses.
In a video shared to Twitter last week that garnered more than 2 million views, the student could be seen twerking while repeating the racial slur.
The woman in the video identified herself in an Instagram post last weekend as FIU student Samantha Ramer. In a lengthy caption, Ramer insisted that she is not a racist, said the video was a joke about the "absurd notion that one's skin color dictates what one is or is not allowed to say," and apologized to those she may have offended. After the post attracted nearly 2,000 comments, Ramer shut off the commenting feature.
FIU president Mark Rosenberg released a statement condemning the video and saying he hoped the student would reflect on the harm her words can do. But some students believe that wasn't enough, including members of FIU's Black Student Union (BSU).
"As a whole, BSU is disappointed. This is the second incident this fall of a student posting on social media saying the n-word," says Jaquan Starling, vice president of BSU at the Modesto Maidique Campus.
Last month, several white FIU softball players posted TikToks of themselves using the n-word while singing along to the song "Do Better" by Lil Donald, prompting the athletics department to assign the athletes to a social-justice course, as first reported by FIU's student publication PantherNOW.
Neither instance constituted a breach of FIU's Code of Student Conduct. But Starling tells New Times the situations make him feel like the university doesn't have the backs of its Black students.
Some Twitter users called for Ramer to be expelled for her use of racial slurs, echoing similar calls to action at other universities across the country over the past several years. In 2015, the University of Oklahoma kicked out two students and disbanded a fraternity after its members led a racist chant that mentioned hanging "[n-words]." The University of Alabama followed suit in 2018 when they expelled student and sorority member Harley Barber after she posted two videos on Instagram in which she said she hates "[n-words]" and then repeated the n-word multiple times in a racist rant.
But those expulsions, while welcomed by certain students, brought the institutions under scrutiny by civil-liberties organizations that said the schools might be infringing on their students' First Amendment rights.
Howard Wasserman, an FIU law professor who specializes in First Amendment law, tells New Times that public universities and government entities can only take action against someone for their speech under specific circumstances — usually when the speech poses an immediate physical threat to another person.
"There are some occasions in which racist comments are not constitutionally protected, and a government entity can sanction them," Wasserman explains. "There are what are called 'true threats,' where if you were threatening someone directly in racial terms, with immediate bodily harm, and your intent was to put them in fear of harm, that would be outside of protection."
In instances like Ramer's video, Wasserman says that although her actions are inappropriate, the university can't do much in response without opening itself to legal action.
"While obnoxious and reprehensible, it's not outside the protections of the First Amendment," the professor says.
This issue of harmful speech or hate speech brushing up against the U.S. Constitution isn't new. As far back as 1929, the Supreme Court presided over cases involving instances of hateful speech, and the court has firmly held that hate speech is protected under the First Amendment.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization that promotes civil liberties on college campuses, argues that as much as people might dislike the racist or hateful things said by their peers, sanctioning them for their speech would cause only more problems, such as paving the way for the U.S. government to silence and punish dissenters.
"In other words, the First Amendment recognizes that the government cannot regulate 'hate speech' without inevitably silencing the dissent and dialogue that democracy requires. Instead, we as citizens possess the power to most effectively answer hateful speech — whether through debate, protest, questioning, laughter, silence, or simply walking away," FIRE wrote in a 2019 blog post.
Starling, the vice president of FIU's Black Student Union, says that his friend reported Ramer's video to the Office of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity but was told that it did not constitute a violation.
An FIU spokesperson told New Times the school could not discuss discipline taken against a student, citing federal privacy laws.
Starling says videos like Ramer's show a lack of understanding in the school community of what words mean and what power they hold. If he could talk to Ramer, he says, he would try to get her to understand the power of her words and the repercussions.
"I wish that she could be more culturally competent understanding that all actions have consequences, and better understand the history of the word instead of playing it off," he says.