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Student returns to campus after suspension for controversial social media posts

A previously suspended Beloit College student returned to campus last week after a series of hearings regarding controversial social media posts. Nathaniel Acharya’20 was suspended from campus for part of Sunday, March 17 and all of Monday, March 18 during an investigation into a series of his social media posts that the college deemed as potentially threatening.

The investigation concluded on Wednesday, March 20, when Acharya was found in violation of “Code #6” in Beloit College’s handbook, which deals with disorderly conduct. He will face academic probation for the rest of the spring semester.

Of the three posts in question– two from Facebook and one on Snapchat– two were directed at another student, Andrew Collins’20, and the politically conservative organization he runs on campus, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF).

Acharya, a Muslim student, made the posts following the March 15 massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand. The attack targeted two mosques in the city of Christchurch, claiming the lives of 50 Muslims who were participating in the Islam faith’s Friday Prayer. Gunman Brenton Tarrant, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, livestreamed part of the attack on Facebook Live, which Acharya watched just prior to the series of social media posts.

The first post was an “open letter to campus and the YAF group” in the Beloit College Student Group on Facebook in which Acharya tagged Collins. Acharya wrote that he was “sick and tired of Muslims being gunned down in their places of worship and bombed to oblivion in their homes by the cult of violent reactionary filth [that YAF] worships.” Acharya went on to criticize YAF’s decision to bring Erik Prince to campus this week, writing that the student body would be “very upset” if the former Blackwater CEO makes his scheduled appearance.

“Get your racist, xenophobic, garbage pail views off of my campus and put them in the trash can of history where they belong,” Acharya wrote, “just like Erik Prince and his evil gang of rapists and murderers.” Acharya concluded his post by calling for students to protest against Prince’s lecture on March 27.

When Collins did not reply to the initial post, which was made at 1:20 a.m. on March 15, Acharya called out Collins directly in the post’s comment section: “[Say] something you pissy little coward. Defend your actions, you troll… Let’s hear some words, you briefcase carrying neoconservative sentient dumpster fire. I’m done talking to your kind, but come on, justify your actions… I’ve been sitting here in silence unable to do anything. You are [privileged], you are in a position of power. Tell me [exactly] why you want this [disgrace] of a human in our campus.”

Acharya made two more posts over the next day. One was a Facebook post in which he shared a screenshot of a Twitter user’s tweet. The tweet, posted by user “Sofian AL-Muslim,” read “Don’t worry Revenge is coming” with a photo of what appears to be an assault rifle next to an ISIS flag. Acharya denounced the tweet: “All Christian and Jewish and Zoroastrian and Communist and secular cousins: keep yourself safe. The actions of this man, and who he chooses to fight will decide where his soul goes. Should he spray his bullets at the fascists, then perhaps he will rest among the green birds, but should he be one of those poor brothers that is only [influenced by] anger and no rationality, his will not be the resting place of the righteous. Stay safe my friends. Please.”

The next post was to Acharya’s Snapchat story, where he said “if you post on [imageboard websites] 4chan or 8pol I don’t care what board you’re part of, you deserve to be shot for knowingly partitioning in one of the biggest breeding grounds for white supremacist terrorists of the modern era.”

Acharya was first notified that his posts had been reported later on Friday, March 15 as the college entered its second weekend of spring break.

“The first inkling that something was wrong was when I got a knock on my door and was told security wanted to talk with me,” Acharya said in an interview with The Round Table. “After that happened, I didn’t get any security people showing up, so I called them, and they said actually the police were here and wanted to speak with me.” He was then met by a resident assistant and three security officers at his door in Peet Hall and escorted to Pearsons Hall via van, he said. Upon reaching the Office of Security in Pearsons, Acharya was awaited by Beloit College Director of Safety and Security Bruce Heine and a City of Beloit police officer.

Acharya asked and was told that it was Collins who contacted security after seeing Acharya’s initial post in the student group directed at YAF.

“[Collins] was worried about disruption with regards to the Erik Prince event,” Acharya said. “Security looked at that and then reviewed my Facebook profile.” Security believed there were grounds for police involvement, according to Acharya.

Collins confirmed that he emailed security after seeing the first of Acharya’s posts.

“I was not personally threatened by the posts or [Acharya] and I informed security of this,” Collins said in an email statement to The Round Table. “It was, however, disheartening to see someone I once counted as a friend publicly condemn me as a moral accomplice to the Christchurch massacre. I wanted security to be aware of the heightened tensions surrounding the Erik Prince lecture following Christchurch so they could take adequate precautions since past events of ours have been disrupted.”

Collins also noted that he “specifically told [security] not to call the police, but acting out of abundance of caution they did so anyway, which was unfortunate.” He further said that he was not responsible for reporting Acharya’s Snapchat post to security: “I do not have [a Snapchat]. From my understanding someone else sent that in, so there were others who voiced concern, but I ended up the public face.”

Following his meeting with security on Friday, Acharya was hand-delivered a letter from the Beloit College Dean of Students’ Office on Sunday, March 17. The letter, an image of which was posted to Facebook by Olivia Love’20, said the office had “received a report that [Acharya had] allegedly been engaged in acts of serious misconduct on March 15th, 2019. Specifically, it is alleged that you posted concerning and threatening posts on social media that may be in violation of Beloit College Student Handbook policy Code #6.”

“In particular, you are accused of intimidating others and/or threatening violence,” the letter continued. “In the context of a series of posts, you are accused of posting a picture of a gun with a caption that read ‘revenge’ is coming. You are also accused of posting that people who post on certain locations deserve to be ‘shot.’”

The letter notified Acharya of his first hearing, which was scheduled for the same day at 3:00 p.m.– roughly an hour after he received the letter, he said– in the Residence Life Office in Whitney Hall.

“No decision has been made to charge you at this time,” the letter said. “[The hearing] will be your opportunity to share your perspective, to walk through the social media posts in question, and discuss this allegation.” The letter also said that Acharya would be entitled to one “support person” throughout the process.

Present at Acharya’s initial hearing were Beloit College Senior Associate Dean of Students Ryan Bouchard and Beloit College Conduct Officer Kareem Attia.

“After a significant amount of conversation, [Bouchard and Attia] said they were going to reschedule [the hearing],” Acharya said of the first hearing. “They asked if Wednesday or Thursday would work, and I said I would prefer Tuesday because I wanted to get back, I wanted to get this over with.” Bouchard and Attia agreed, but told Acharya he would be “kicked off campus” in the interim. This would have been the case regardless of when the hearing was scheduled, Acharya said. Acharya spent Sunday night at the home of a student who lives off-campus and then most of Monday at the home of Beloit College Professor Greg Buchanan. Acharya’s decision to schedule his hearing so soon seemed to confirm one of the big concerns expressed by various members of the community. While policy allows an investigation to take up to 20 days, many pointed to how banning a student from campus would effectively make a student homeless, as Buchanan stated during Academic Senate. Some at senate argued that this policy incentivizes students to navigate through the process as quickly as possible.

Following his Tuesday hearing, Acharya’s suspension was lifted and he was able to return to campus. The verdict was handed down at a final hearing on Wednesday afternoon, during which Acharya was found in violation of Code #6 and was sentenced to academic probation for the remainder of the semester. Code #6, according to the Student Handbook, prohibits “disorderly conduct which includes behavior that fails to treat other members of the community with courtesy or respect for their rights and needs, or failure to maintain the highest standards of honesty and integrity in all aspects of their lives.” Acharya said that the committee found his language disturbing but not inherently threatening.

Student protests were organized prior to Acharya’s hearings on both Tuesday and Wednesday. Students, as well as several alumni, in support of Acharya swarmed the hallways of Whitney Hall on both days. Along with signs and banners, a copy of a petition to allow Acharya back onto campus, spearheaded by Love, was also present at the protests. The petition garnered a total of 351 signatures from faculty and students.

Zhao Kang/The Round Table

Zhao Kang/The Round Table

During the Wednesday protests, Beloit College President Scott Bierman and Dean of Students Cecil Youngblood walked past the commotion as they were leaving a meeting with the board of trustees. Students flagged down Bierman and Youngblood and attempted to ask them questions about the case and process on the spot.

At 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Academic Senate was held, where Bierman and Youngblood were slated to hold a discussion regarding Acharya’s case. As students, professors and faculty filled Richardson Auditorium, Professor of Biology Yaffa Grossman, who was leading the senate, elected to move Acharya’s case to the first item on the agenda.

“There are limited things that I can say,” Bierman said as a disclaimer, referring to the FERPA laws that protect the privacy of student education records. “Both legal and ethical reasons restrict what we are allowed to talk about.”

Various topics came up throughout Academic Senate, such as attendees linking Acharya’s case to the upcoming Prince visit and white supremacy. Another issue raised was a similar occurrence in spring 2017, when the parent of a Beloit College student posted threatening images directed at the college to Facebook and posted about bringing a gun to campus. When asked why that situation was not taken as seriously as the case involving Acharya, Bierman countered that the incident was taken just as seriously, but the circumstances were different since the threat was not on campus.

“In that instance, the person who posted the post about guns was banned from campus, and continues to be banned from campus,” Bierman said.

Many, including Acharya, believe that his posts were misinterpreted with regards to his motivation behind them.

“I felt completely unable to do anything,” Acharya said. “Having seen a lot dead Muslims, it gets really depressing eventually. But New Zealand has always been like one of the [safest] countries, in my mind, in the world, and just the fact that 50 people were gunned down like it’s Yemen or Syria, I just sort of felt the entire weight of what is happening in our nation, as in the Islamic Nation, sort of hit me all at once, and I felt powerless to stop anything.”

Acharya noted that he has worked in conflict journalism in the past, having volunteered remotely as a writer and editor for Qasioun News, an independent Syrian news agency based in Turkey. He also mentioned an incident in fall 2016 when he was covering the Siege of Aleppo for Qasioun and was reported anonymously to the FBI, who came to campus and interrogated him.

“I realized the posting, that sort of stuff, would be empty gestures of feudal rage– and I believed I mentioned that in the post– but I really needed to vent,” he said. “It’s like the social equivalent of going out into the street and yelling at the crowds.”

While he understands how his posts– particularly the tweet he shared that mentioned revenge– could have been perceived as threatening, Acharya questioned administration’s interpretations of the posts.

“The issue is the one thing I can see is having reason to assume as a threat was the tweet I shared,” he said. “Yes, there was disturbing imagery on it, but people and myself have shared stuff a lot more disturbing than that. I think it was just entirely in people’s knee-jerk reaction when they see the ISIS flag.

“I do not think the process itself was fair. I don’t know if the reason behind it was fair, also I don’t think the suspension was fair,” Acharya continued, “but specifically, Ryan Bouchard and Kareem Attia handled it extremely professionally. They were shackled by procedure, but they were quite professional with it. They seemed to more or less understand that it was all more or less a misunderstanding.”

Youngblood, however, defended the process both at Academic Senate and during the interview with The Round Table. While some suggested that Acharya had been unfairly targeted and that it seemed there was no clear understanding of what would be considered threatening, Youngblood stated that “if you go in the policy book it pretty well states what the parameters are around definitions of harassment…those decisions aren’t arbitrary.” Youngblood recognized that the definitions “still have to be interpreted by someone [but] there are things in there that set those parameters.”

Acharya said that he felt “bringing Erik Prince to campus here in the immediate aftermath of the [Christchurch] attack was not only very cold, but inflammatory as well.”

Collins commented on the linkage between Acharya’s suspension and YAF hosting Prince this week.

“It’s true that my concerns were for the smooth operation of the [Prince] event,” he said, “but the ‘situation’ that developed was well beyond anything that can be chalked up to myself, YAF or Erik Prince. The event will proceed.”

Collins’ concerns towards Acharya’s Facebook posts were rooted in disruptions that took place at one of YAF’s events last spring.

“Our inaugural event featured a speaker named Harvey Mansfield who was heckled throughout his speech,” Collins said. “[Acharya] was indeed one of the hecklers, hence my concern as the tensions surrounding Erik Prince appeared to be [much] worse than what occurred with Mansfield. As for other YAF chapters around the country, as controversies go, this was rather mild.”

As far as student and campus reaction to the incident, Acharya was shocked at the overwhelming support he received.

“I was really grateful that everyone came out in support of me,” he said. “I was genuinely surprised that that many people were willing to make those sorts of stands in support of me. It was really eye-opening.”

Meanwhile, Collins received some backlash from the campus community when it surfaced that he initially contacted security.

“I was as shocked as anyone at [Acharya’s] suspension and I am relieved that he was not expelled,” Collins said. “The reaction was dispiriting because people had gotten it in their heads that I had informed the civil authorities and started the judicial process leading to his suspension which is patently false. I can’t say I was entirely surprised by this narrative, however. I know my peers and faculty rather well and this ordeal fell into their laps as means to invest further in their ideological commitments.”

President Bierman and Youngblood were similarly surprised, but not completely. “We know for sure that issues involving discipline in lots and lots of different ways are high stakes and emotions run very high,” Bierman said during the interview with The Round Table.

Youngblood agreed, “We know we have a very involved campus,” which Youngblood assured makes administration “be as thorough as we can when we make any kinds of decisions.” The “degree” of the reaction was surprising for Youngblood: “I don’t know if we even thought about what the degree would be because at that point in time we were just looking into following our policy and doing what was necessary…It’s hard–we do know that that’s what our campus is about and that there’s an expectation that there would be some questioning and some response to whatever decisions were made.”

As Bierman and Youngblood mentioned at Academic Senate, Acharya’s case has prompted administration to reconsider the process of some of the Beloit College handbook’s policies and potentially make changes to policies as a result. Although when those changes may be made and subsequently implemented remains unclear. 

Dianne Lugo contributed to the reporting for this story. 

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