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UNC Cleared, Lecturer Cited in Harassment Incident

A five-month civil rights investigation at UNC has determined that the University responded appropriately to a harassment incident in February.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that an e-mail message sent by an English lecturer to her students qualified as harassment because it targeted a student for criticism based on the student’s race and gender.

In a letter to Chancellor James Moeser dated Sept. 22, the Office for Civil Rights concluded that actions taken by the University “constituted an appropriate response that prevented any further harm to the student.”

The Office for Civil Rights “has determined that the university adequately addressed the lecturer’s conduct and that no further action by the university is necessary,” the letter stated.

The controversy arose in Elyse Crystall’s “Literature and Cultural Diversity” class following a discussion of Allan G. Johnson’s book Privilege, Power, and Difference. In the last minutes of one class, a male student commented on the topic of whether heterosexual men feel threatened by homosexual men.

The student said that he felt “disgusted” rather than threatened by homosexuals and would not wish to explain to a child why two men were kissing at a ball game.

In her e-mail to the class the next day, Crystall referred to the student as a “privileged, white, heterosexist Christian male” and said his comments constituted “hate speech.”

The student showed the e-mail to English department Chair James Thompson, who arranged a meeting with Crystall and the student. Thompson also suggested that Crystall send an apology to the class via e-mail, which she did. Following the incident, a teaching coordinator monitored the class and Crystall scheduled a discussion with the class about issues of expression and respect and how they should be managed.

“We want to recognize the University for realizing that the lecturer’s email was an inappropriate response to the student’s comments,” the Office for Civil Rights letter said. “The e-mail message not only subjected the student to intentional discrimination and harassment, but also discouraged the robust exchange of ideas that is intrinsic to higher education and is at the very heart of the Constitution’s protection of free speech.”

The Office for Civil Rights found that Crystall’s e-mail violated Titles VI and IX of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibit discrimination based on race and sex, respectively. The office does not have jurisdiction to investigate discrimination based on religion or sexual orientation.

“We are pleased that the Office for Civil Rights’ review found that the University acted appropriately in this case,” Moeser said in a statement.

In addition to the Crystall case, the Office for Civil Rights examined five recent incidents of alleged civil rights violations at UNC to verify the University’s consistency in handling such cases. The office wanted to determine whether the University might have responded differently had the race or sex of the teacher or student been different.

The office concluded that “there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that the university treated this incident differently than comparable incidents based upon the race or sex of the persons involved.”

Crystall’s e-mail received widespread attention from both campus and local media. The Office for Civil Rights initiated the investigation in March following a request by U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., that the Department of Education look into the incident.


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