First Amendment lawyers sprang into action Wednesday in response to reports that two University of Connecticut students had been arrested this week on charges of shouting racist words in a parking lot on a drunken ramble home.
In a letter with the unmistakable whiff of a legal brief, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) informed UConn officials that both the investigation and the arrest of the two students clearly crossed constitutional lines.
The 21-year-old students, identified as Jarred Karal and Ryan Mucaj, began yelling the N-word on the night of Oct. 11 when they went through a parking lot adjacent to a university dorm, according to accounts.
Their behavior violated a Connecticut statute that FIRE said is unconstitutional on its face.
“FIRE is deeply concerned by the investigation and arrest of two students by the University of Connecticut Police Department pursuant to a statute that any reasonable police officer would have known is unconstitutional,” wrote Adam Steinbaugh, a FIRE director in a letter to UConn President Thomas C. Katsouleas and UConn’s chief of police, Hans Rhynhart.
“However offensive the use of a racial epithet, not directed at any person, the First Amendment protects offensive language, and neither the University of Connecticut nor its police officers may abridge students’ First Amendment rights,” Mr. Steinbaugh wrote, demanding the university drop any charges. By “investigating and arresting students who use offensive language, UConn has departed from its clear and non-negotiable constitutional obligations.”
On Oct. 11, Mr. Karal and Mr. Mucaj were walking home from a bar and pizzeria near midnight when the pair began playing a game in which each dared the other to say, “penis,” in an increasingly loud voice until one man quit or whispered it, and at some point during the game, the word reportedly morphed into the n-word, according to The Daily Campus, the UConn student newspaper.
Another student, playing video games in his dorm room, reportedly heard them early in the game and sprang to his window to begin videotaping them. When Mr. Karal and Mr. Mucaj allegedly saw the student filming them, according to his account, they fell silent for a time and then switched to the N-word.
The videotaping student, whose name has not been released, did not actually catch the n-word but after rewatching the clip and turning up the volume determined it was the racial slur, according to affidavits cited by The Daily Campus.
“As the group transitioned to saying (the N-word) they began to speak in a much softer tone and were not screaming nearly as loud as they had been previously,” the taping student was quoted as saying.
He reported the incident, which led to Mr. Mucaj’s and Mr. Karal’s arrest by university police on charges of violating Connecticut General Statute 53-37, which bans ridicule on account of creed, religion, color, denomination, nationality or race, according to UConn spokesman Stephanie Reitz.
A third man walking in the parking lot with the other two, who apparently did not participate in the game and told them they should stop playing it, was not charged.
The Daily Campus reported that the arrested students gave differing accounts to university police, with Mr. Karal admitting what happened and apologizing for the game, which he insisted was not directed at any person and was instead just general foolishness. Mr. Mucaj said he was drunk and did not remember what was said, according to the affidavits.
Despite the ignoble behavior, UConn has no right even to investigate its students for words unquestionably protected by the First Amendment, according to FIRE.
“Even short of arrest, UConn’s maintenance of a lengthy investigation, coupled with its refusal to clarify to reporters whether it might pursue disciplinary action against the students involved, is itself a violation of the First Amendment,” Mr. Steinbaugh wrote.
FIRE also objected to Mr. Katsouleas’ praising university police for their actions and painting the incident in dire terms.
The school “is supportive of our core values to pursue accountablity, through due process, for an egregious assault on our community that has caused considerable harm,” Mr. Katsouleas said in a UConn statement at the time.
Mr. Steinbaugh told school officials that the case was so obvious that the officers who arrested the students should not be praised.
“In the course of a ten-day investigation over a high-profile controversy, the university and its law enforcement officers must have learned both that the students’ speech was protected and that the statute through which it justified their arrests was unconstitutional,” he wrote. “If they did not, it is a remarkable failure for an institution ostensibly dedicated to furthering freedom of expression, and it is disappointing that the leadership of such an institution would praise law enforcement for arresting its students.”
• James Varney can be reached at email@example.com.
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