CARBONDALE — In August 2017, just after the deadly white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, a nonprofit media group called Unicorn Riot began to publish leaked chats from an application called Discord.
Discord had become an important gathering place for white nationalist groups, including the organizers of Unite the Right, which resulted in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer, who was run over by a car driven by 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr.
In the aftermath of the rally, the leaks kept coming, and Discord is now the subject of a First Amendment lawsuit seeking to identify participants in the Charlottesville rally. The leaks are also being used to out alleged white supremacists on college campuses.
This week, an anonymous group accused a male Southern Illinois University student of belonging to a neo-Nazi group called the Traditionalist Workers Party, in flyers posted on campus and on social media, bearing the student’s name and face.
The group identified the student based on the analysis of more than 4,000 chat messages from a Discord user named "Fash Dragon," who identifies himself as a Dean’s List forestry student at the Carbondale campus. The chats were written between October 2017 and March 2018.
In them, Fash Dragon used ethnic slurs against African-Americans and homosexuals, spoke of hating Jewish people, and posted photos, including a selfie and a photo of a shooting range target riddled with bullet holes and captioned “Rahowa (an acronym for Racial Holy War) Ready.”
SIUC has not confirmed the accused student’s identity, but records show a student with the same name as the accused is currently enrolled, studying forestry, and appears on the Dean’s List for Fall of 2017, receiving straight-A grades.
SIUC’s investigation is “ongoing,” according to university spokeswoman Rae Goldsmith.
Across the country, a parallel case is unfolding. On Sept. 8, a University of Southern California graduate student named Robert L. Walker II was accused on Twitter of participating in the planning chat rooms for the Charlottesville rally, under the handle N*gg*rnaut.
The person using that handle also posted racial slurs and bloody images of lynchings on Discord and expressed violent opinions, such as writing that Holocaust museums demonstrate “what methods...worked best” for exterminating Jews.
About two weeks after the initial accusation, USC publicly confirmed that Walker was accused of posting hate speech, and was under investigation by the school.
However, the school hasn’t announced any disciplinary action.
Walker "hasn't committed violations on the law," USC School of Engineering Dean Yannis Yortsos told USC Annenberg Media, but "has volunteered not to come to campus at any time" for the foreseeable future, as the investigation continues.
At SIUC, Chancellor Carlo Montemagno reminded students Thursday that the disciplinary actions that some community members have requested, including “requests that we remove the student and revoke any scholarship that has been awarded,” are unlikely.
If a student’s statements are not considered “threatening language” there’s not a lot the institution can do, Goldsmith explained, because even “hate-speech,” like a racial slur, is protected by the First Amendment.
SIUC’s Student Code of Conduct does prohibit speech that incites a “person or group to take violent action, whether or not violence results,” speech that directly expresses “a threat of, or intent to commit, an act of violence,” and speech that “encourages others to engage in or continue” a fight.
The university is “aware” of the Discord chat posts, Goldsmith said, but could not confirm whether they are part of any investigation.
Although Fash Dragon makes repeated use of racial epithets, and describes intent to organize a white supremacist group in Carbondale, The Southern’s analysis of the chats found nothing that appeared to meet the direct, personal, and threatening criteria for speech to be punishable under the SIUC Code of Conduct, and First Amendment precedent.
Still, universities have expelled students simply for using racist language before. In January, Harley Barber was expelled from the University of Alabama for using racial epithets in videos posted to Instagram.
That move received backlash from constitutional scholars and civil rights activists, including Ira Glasser, a former executive director of the ACLU, who recommended Alabama seek: “a more imaginative, less constitutionally dangerous and more educational,” punishment for Barber, according to the Washington Post.
Alabama did not change its position, and Barber’s mother later said publicly that she believed the punishment was appropriate for her daughter’s actions.
Were the accused SIUC student found to have violated the university’s code of conduct, he could be subject to disciplinary action, ranging from “an educational sanction all the way to expulsion,” said Lori Stettler, SIUC’s vice chancellor for student affairs. Such a determination would be made by conduct officers in SIUC’s Student Rights and Responsibilities Office. Students participate in any investigation relating to them, Stettler said, and have the right to appeal its determinations.
Efforts by The Southern to contact the accused student and his family have been unsuccessful.
This is the second time this week that a white supremacist group has become a topic of conversation on local campuses.
On Tuesday morning, 50 to 75 cars at John A. Logan College were plastered with “It’s ALRIGHT to be WHITE (sic)” advertisements from the Church of Creativity, a group that describes itself as “dedicated to the survival, expansion and advancement of the white race,” and is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Those flyers were quickly collected and thrown out by campus police, according to a statement from the college. The identity of their poster remains unknown.