Rebecca Journey, a professor at the University of Chicago, thought little of calling her new college seminar « The Whiteness Problem. » Though provocatively titled, the anthropology class covered familiar academic territory: how the racial category « white » has changed over time.
She was surprised, then, when her mailbox exploded in November with vitriolic messages from dozens of strangers. One wrote that she was « profoundly evil ». Another: « Blow your head off. »
The instigator was Daniel Schmidt, a sophomore and conservative activist with tens of thousands of social media followers. He tweeted, “Hatred against whites is now a mainstream academic investigation,” along with the course description and Dr. Journey’s photo and university email address.
Frightened, Dr. Journey, a newly minted PhD. preparing to hit the academic job market, he has postponed his class until spring. So he filed complaints with the university, accusing Mr. Schmidt of harassing and harassing her.
Mr. Schmidt, 19, denied encouraging anyone to harass her. And university officials have rejected his claims. As far as they knew, they said, Mr. Schmidt did not personally send her any offensive emails. And under the university’s long-standing and acclaimed commitment to academic freedom, speech has been restricted only when it « constitutes a genuine threat or nuisance. »
The university one 2014 Declaration on the Principles of Free Speech, known as the Chicago Declaration, has become a touchstone and guideline for colleges across the country that have struggled to handle university disputes, particularly as liberal students have silenced conservative speakers. Dozens of schools have adopted it.
But what followed for the rest of the academic year at the University of Chicago tested whether its principles appeal to a new and rapidly changing environment where a single tweet can rain vitriol and threats.
The Chicago statement assumes what happens on campuses is « in good faith and that people have an interest in engaging ideas, » said Isaac A. Kamola, of Faculty First Responders, who monitors conservative attacks on academics. But, he added, « the ecosystem that Daniel Schmidt is a part of has no interest in having a conversation. »
Geoffrey R. Stone, a law professor, headed the faculty committee that drafted the Chicago statement. He said at the time the group wasn’t thinking about how online threats could harm freedom of expression — never mind this situation, in which Mr. Schmidt simply posted a tweet with publicly available information.
Repeatedly posting, even knowing the answer, could be harassment, said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.
But, she said, « The tough question is, where did that line cross? »
Mr. Schmidt seemed to understand that he was right on the border.
“Any other school would probably have kicked me out by now,” he tweeted in March. « UCChicago is the only high school that cares about free speech. »
A contradictory activist
Classes that explore white they were taught in liberal arts departments for decades. Students explore how white people are treated as the norm, affecting, among other things, wealth and political power.
Similar courses, however, have come under scrutiny by conservatives as divisive.
“Like, what is he saying? That I’m a problem because I’m white? Mr. Schmidt said in a TikTok video.
In an interview, Mr. Schmidt said his goal was to show Dr. Journey « what normal Americans think. » But he condemned anyone who sent her death threats or hate messages. And, he said, even if he hadn’t posted his email address, « let’s face it, people would have found it. »
Mr. Schmidt has already found himself in contradictory roles.
Over the past year or so, he has actively supported Kanye West, the artist now known as Ye, for president, work he has promoted with Nick Fuentes, a Holocaust denier. Mr. Schmidt declined to comment on his political activism or his relationship with Mr. Fuentes.
In her freshman year at the university, Mr. Schmidt was fired from The Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper, after its editors claimed she repeatedly antagonized another columnist on Instagram and encouraged others to spam her. Mr. Schmidt said he was simply « calling a public figure ».
After also being fired from a conservative campus publication, Mr. Schmidt took to his website, College Dissident, which featured articles such as « It’s time to fight anti-white hate on campus. »
His activism has helped fuel an industry dedicated to accusing universities of liberal orthodoxy. Websites like Campus Reform and The College Fix have been doing this for years trained students to report on campus controversies, hoping conservative news outlets like Fox News, Breitbart and The Daily Caller will spin their own stories.
All three publications ended up writing about Dr. Journey’s class.
And after the course catalog said class had been canceled for the winter, Mr. Schmidt celebrated. “This is a big win,” he tweeted.
A push for punishment
Two weeks after Mr. Schmidt’s first tweets in November about the course, John W. Boyer, then the college dean, sent an email to a handful of staff and faculty, describing the incident as « cyberbullying, » intended to intimidate the instructor with mobilizing anonymous threats and harassment. The university, he added, would not allow it.
But in February the university rejected Dr. Journey’s complaints. Officials declined to discuss the case, citing privacy concerns, but said the school had « policies to address harassment, threats or other misconduct, including instances involving online communications, » which affect all students.
Dr. Journey was furious. « I don’t want disciplinary action against this student just out of a sense of justice for me personally, » he told the Times. « By condoning cyberabuse, there is no deterrent effect. »
In his dismissal, Jeremy W. Inabinet, an associate dean of students, acknowledged that becoming a target of online criticism could be disturbing. His office, he said, would advise the college to talk to the student.
That discussion didn’t happen, Mr. Schmidt said.
In March, four days before the class started, he posted again, this time on TikTok, complain about a December column in The Maroon of Dr. Journey e a local news article in November, in which she was quoted as saying, « We can’t let cyberterrorists win. »
In the video, she said, « People have a right to know who teaches these classes, » and re-shared her photo and email address. Dr. Journey’s inbox was on fire again.
Administrators had already beefed up security. They had moved Dr. Journey’s classroom to a building that required key card access and did not publicly list the location. Dr Journey said the university has stepped up security patrols.
Officials also took key steps that advocates of academic freedom say many colleges fail to do: They affirmed Dr. Journey’s right to teach the classroom and didn’t alienate the institution from her.
But Dr. Journey continued to receive a flood of emails, hundreds in total, as well as letters to her home and office. Someone of her subscribed her to a Pornhub newsletter.
Dr. Journey filed another complaint with the university in April, this time also signed by Shannon Lee Dawdy, then chair of the anthropology department.
« On a campus notoriously dedicated to academic freedom, » they wrote, « students cannot be allowed to launch public hate campaigns with the intent to intimidate faculty and stop teaching material they don’t like. »
This claim was also rejected.
Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami law professor who studies civil rights and technology, said universities should pay more attention to intimidating faculty members.
Cyberbullying « is much more intentional, vicious and threatening to a person than someone shouting nasty things at a person during a speech, » she said, adding that Mr. Schmidt’s behavior « has been calculated to generate exactly the reaction it has. » caused ».
Professor Stone, who wrote the Chicago statement, agreed the student’s actions could have a « chilling effect » on the speech. But, he asked, who determines the difference between, say, a newspaper reporting on an individual and Mr. Schmidt’s actions? Both can lead to hate mail and threats, he said.
The university, as a private institution, could change its policies to say that students, staff and faculty may not publish material intended to intimidate, Professor Stone said.
But such a move — which he doesn’t recommend — would run counter to the First Amendment if the university were public and would bring its own complications, he said.
« It’s very difficult for both the law and institutions to monitor this kind of thing, » he said. « Your admins may be biased in terms of who they’re looking for and who they aren’t looking for. »
And while it could be strongly argued that Mr. Schmidt’s intent was to intimidate, Professor Stone said: « Do you really want to get into the business of trying to figure out what the purpose was? »
This explanation may be unsatisfactory for students who want a solution. Watson Lubin, a senior in Dr. Journey’s class, said he chose the university in part because of its reputation for academic freedom. But in his four years, he said, he soured on the rhetoric of free expression.
“I’m concerned that Daniel Schmidt has actually formed some kind of precedent here,” he said, “where you can, under the auspices of free speech, more or less intimidate and harass a professor, and sic your incredible following on TikTok and Twitter upon them for the purpose of chilling the speech.”
A few weeks ago, at the end of his sophomore year, Mr. Schmidt posted another TikTok video about the class and again complained about Dr. Journey’s column.
« This is too far away, » he said. “The kids from my school, what, they’re celebrating. They are having fun. And in the meantime, I have to deal with this.