Back to School To-Do List: Prepare for Hate Flyers

Almost time to return to campus, which means you should be asking yourself: Are we prepared for hate flyers?

You’re probably not, unfortunately, even though colleges, universities, and even high schools continue to be targets for flyering from white supremacist groups. So, as you pick out new highlighters for the spring, take a few minutes to review your plan for how you’ll respond if hate groups come to your campus, and, please, ask your administrators what their plans are.

I’ve recently been asked to provide some help for friends facing flyering on campus. There isn’t much peer-reviewed research published, so what I share below is based on my own experiences and what I’ve learned from other work in hate studies.


See the source image

Why flyering?

Flyering serves several functions: it recruits, it intimidates members of the community who are narrowly its targets (racial minorities, Jews, queer people, etc.) and it also intimidates their allies and accomplices, it recalibrates what might be considered hateful behavior, it forces peace makers and justice seekers to direct resources toward the flyers (and thus away from other work), it invests haters in their cause by having them engage in action (often together), etc. A thoughtful response will work to thwart the success of each of these functions.

We’ve been flyered. What should we do first?

A community needs to think about how they respond to this but also how they prevent it. Both are important, but, in the aftermath of a flyering event, response is critical.

The response has to be authentic to the people making it. Responses cannot promise more than the university community can deliver. That means that a university administration and the university community have to be honest about what they are willing and able to do. It rings hollow when a university tries to tell people targeted that they are “safe” there; they’re not, and they know it, because otherwise this wouldn’t have happened in the first place. I have found that, unfortunately, many universities signal with weak promises. For example, last year, one university president wrote email to his campus telling students and faculty that the university would support the presence of Dreamer students on campus—but immediately undercut it by saying that that support would have to be in compliance with the law, even as his urged a reconsideration of it. A state legislator went after him, and he left his position very quickly after that. Contrast this with Notre Dame’s language about Dreamers.) Another common response is to call for “unity” in the face of hate, which is appealing, but it tends to result in a process that silences students who are minorities. Thus, “unity” responses to Westboro Baptist Church, for example, have explicitly discouraged queer participation because leaders don’t want to call attention to sexual diversity. Likewise, “unity”-themed responses to racism can end up being colorblind racist affairs.

So the first tasks it to know the community and what they are willing and able to offer. If they aren’t willing or able to do anything, then… well, then the haters are probably right: this isn’t a place where minority students are welcome.

Then what?

The next step, I think, is to focus on the narrow targets. Sometimes this is specific students or professors. What do they want and what do they need? What is the process for listening to them without overwhelming them? Have a list of practical suggestions when you go to them so that you can help them start to see the ways you can help and where they need help. Some ideas:

  • Campus escort and also escort to and from campus
  • Hospitality at an off-campus location during time of heightened concern or a hotel room
  • Mail handling
  • E-mail handling (someone else checks and sorts their email to reduce exposure to hateful content)
  • Re-routing all phone messages through the dean’s office or elsewhere
  • Counseling services
  • Opportunities to take an incomplete in coursework
  • A “pause” in the tenure process to allow time to address these issues
  • Short-term suspension of service duties

Because some of these things might be long-term, it’s important to have a team of people who can offer ongoing support so that those offering support don’t become fatigued.

A university administration’s first obligation is to those targeted by these flyers. It also, though, has to help the rest of the community respond. Again, here it is most important, I think, that the response accurately reflects the community. The good news is that university communities are full of creative people who are good at problem solving. So find what your community is good at—what brings them joy, what they know to be true about themselves and they can count on being true even under pressure—and form a response from that. That might mean art, music, or theater; it might mean public lectures; it might mean small group discussions; it might mean rowdy street action; it might mean boycotts. Faculty can be invaluable in helping students find their talents and helping them leverage them into responses—responses that are aimed at the targeted students, other activist students, students who may be unsure of how to respond, students who may be potential recruits, and students doing the flyering. All of those people need to be addressed (or invited to march or sung at or lectured or screamed at).

How can we make sure that these groups and individuals don’t make headway on campus?

The recruiting potential of the flyers needs to be undercut. Unfortunately, if this were happening, recruiters wouldn’t be on campus in the first place. Look hard for the signals that the university is sending that it is a place open to white supremacists. What’s going on in frat life? Are you seeing blackface at Halloween? Garbage like that lets white supremacists know that there are racists on campus. To be blunt: make racists on campus suffer. Don’t allow the student Republican club to bring in Ben Shapiro. (This is not an infringement of free speech. University resources, from student club funding to space on campus, need to be used in a way that supports the mission of the university. Just like you wouldn’t invite Wrestlemania to campus, you aren’t going to invite Ben Shapiro, because neither of them are here to engage ideas critically, which is what college is for.) Use existing policies to expel students who engage in racist behavior. If faculty are teaching racist content, work with them to change—or call them out in professional settings and publications. Allow racists to experience the full consequences of their choices; it is okay to allow people to be responsible for their choices.

Image result for hate flyers on central michigan university

Above, flyers found on Central Michigan University’s campus in November 2018.

Who should pay for this? Who should lead?

While you are doing all this, also be sure that the resources to do it are not coming from groups who do anti-hate work all the time or compensate them for their expertise. It’s not the job of the Black Student Union or the Multicultural Center or Hillel House to do this work. At the same time, you don’t want them to be ignored. So consult with them on what they want and need and how they want to participate, presuming neither that majority-status students should lead nor that they shouldn’t. If targeted students do decide to lead, find the resources to support them so they aren’t taking funds away from other things that are important to them.

Students are incredibly powerful here—maybe more than faculty. They can create crews to observe in areas prone to flyering (for example, the Duke University memorial to Tree of Life victims, which was vandalized). They can remove flyers. They can document and broadcast flyering.

In my experience, universities do NOT want students documenting and sharing that there was flyering on campus. In one way, they are correct: you don’t want to signal to other haters than this set of haters has identified your campus as full of likely recruits. At the same time, that’s not usually the university’s concern; their concern is bad press. So leverage that into pressure for them to solve the problem. Give them bad press (or let students do it) until they act.

What about the haters? Do we address them?

The last people to car about here are the people flyering, but it could be that, as part of your community’s response, you do want to care about them. (This is a matter of your community’s values, and you owe nothing to these people.) One practical reason to care is that some of them can be persuaded away from white supremacy. Many of them don’t participate in this kind of behavior because they believe the ideology (at least not at first) but because they enjoy the community—as well as the thrill of engaging in hateful behavior and the way it unites them with others. In the long run, we fight hate by building better narratives—by helping people have a sense of hope in the future. In the short term, you can drain flyering of its meaning and fun for these people by… well, by crushing their efforts. Honestly, they give up relatively easily—and more easily the less success they’ve had (the more activity they do, the more invested the get, which is why a fast and thorough response is key). You just have to make the costs of flyering pretty high for them.

Won’t giving these groups attention just encourage them?

Extinction works well when you are working with toddlers; it works less well when you are working with racists. Here is what one former racist recruiter shared in a presentation I once saw:

You want to recruit in a town. You go in and do a little damage–paint a swastika on the synagogue, for example. If, the next day, the only people cleaning it up are the Jews in town, you stay and recruit. If, the next day, the whole town is there–more people than you can count, more people than could ever be useful in cleaning it up, and they are of every faith and they are happy to be pulling together and they are loud in their proclamation that this won’t stand in their town… then you move on. There’s no reason wasting your time there.

The worst thing to do is to ignore this or treat it like it’s nuanced, which is often attempt of good liberal folks and university lawyers. Responding quickly requires advance preparation, so your administrators need to have a plan in place and ready to go, assuming that flyering will continue. Again, that plan needs to be authentic to the university, but a solid one will 1) stress that the university community and the university administration will not tolerate hate on campus, 2) remove all flyers immediately, 3) review video footage to identify those flyering, 4) analyze flyers to see if they can find the printer (and let all local print shops know that the university will not conduct business with them if they choose to print such flyers), and 5) invest students in documenting, removing, and reporting flyering.

How can I help my administrators make the right choices to address hate?

Public university administrations, unfortunately, often fail to take strong action, not really because they believe in free speech or even because they are “risk adverse” (the excuse we most often make for them) but because they are beholden to conservative state legislators. And while those state legislators don’t want to be seen as taking the side of white supremacists of the kind that flyer campuses, they do want the support of their not-too-distant relations, Republican voters and donors. They will use “free speech” as their excuse, but that’s a lie. I mean, it’s a lie that they care about free speech, and it’s also a lie that this is a free speech issue.

One way to fight this is to give them bad PR. Remind them that students will choose to go to universities that don’t have these problems. Keep the story in the news. Help the football team developing talking points about the racism they fear on campus. Have a senior basketball player write an op-ed to a major newspaper about the challenge of being on a campus that doesn’t address threats against students of color. Consider legal action for their failure to create a safe workplace. Get the student paper to run articles about the history of racism on campus. Find out the racist dirt on donors and threaten to publicize it. Submit a story to the Chronicle about the racists that university campus buildings are named after. Run a flank that is makes their lives so unpleasant that the other options you give them are ones they happily take.

In other words, think like a university administrator. They have zero computation about making life hell for people they don’t want on campus, whether that is women who have filed Title IX complaints or faculty who are too left-leaning.

I don’t mean to say that all university administrators are evil. You might find yours are wonderful to work with. But do keep this in mind: they are there to protect the institution, not its people. Exploit that by threatening the institution in ways that can actually hurt it. You can do this with wide-eyed innocence (“I’m just really worried that we could get a bad reputation if this story is circulating broadly.” “I am concerned that, if our donors thought we weren’t doing everything possible to address this, they might feel like their reputations were being sullied by association with us.”) or with veiled threats (“Are you concerned about lawsuits since the presence of such flyers may rise to the level of harassment?”).

What can I do that’s relatively easy and won’t get me in hot water with my weak-willed administration?

Look at your policies and revise them to make it really hard for hate to come on campus. Administrators love to hide behind policies, so give them policies that give them cover. Make a university-wide policy that all flyers must be stamped with the date of approval and note that they will be removed within 2 weeks of the date of approval. Racists won’t show up to get them stamped, and then everyone is empowered to take them down. Even easier, make sure that everyone on campus knows that flyers on spaces other than university bulletin boards (under windshields, on doors and walls) are litter or a fire hazard (all true). Make a policy that all flyers must be part of a university-sponsored organization or in support of a university-sponsored event. This is not a violation of anyone’s free speech because, even in public spaces, space is at a premium and it is respectful of taxpayer money to use that space for the purposes of higher education. (Plus, no one will miss the relentless flyering from the new Orange Therapy gym.) Train the custodians or administrative assistants to remove anything that does not meet this standard. Free speech is retained, with all students subject to the same time, place, and manner restrictions (all perfectly legal—you aren’t allowed to scream in the library and call it “free speech) without regard to content.

That is just to say: if white supremacists want to argue for free speech, let THEM, not the university administration, make the argument.

Suggest that they meet with other administrators in the region to create a cross-university plan, which will help keep hate recruiters on the move. If they know that no school in the area will tolerate them, they will move on to a different region.

Finally, remind that that other universities have taken bold action and that, in the end, they can be among the universities that can be proud of their response, or they can be among the universities that continue getting negative press for flyering. It’s that simple of a choice.

Should we counter hate speech with more speech?

For sure, yes, but don’t give hate speakers a platform that legitimizes them. Just like we don’t waste university resources invited people to campus to debate if the world is round or flat, we don’t invite them to campus to explain why the Holocaust didn’t happen or why people of color have lower IQs than white people. Campus invitations need to be reserved for people who support the stated mission of the public university: to foster critical thinking skills necessary for the success of our civil society. Just as it’s my job to vet books and articles for my students to read to ensure that they are spending their time engaging thoughtful work, it’s the university’s job to devote its resources to speakers who have earned the right–through rigorous intellectual training–to use university space and time.

Will this work?

Look, I’ll be honest: hate groups go where they think they will be heard. By the time you get flyered, the problem is that your campus is seen as hospitable to hate. You have a deeper problem. But you can fight it, and fighting it at the level of flyers is important. It’s also a relatively easy battle to win (and much easier than fighting to decolonize the curriculum, for example, or for more tenured faculty of color, or to rid campus of frats, which are bastions of white privilege and supremacy), and you have to win it.

A final and rather depressing thought: Most of this haters will be discouraged—probably especially when winter comes and it’s too damned cold to go outside and engage in nasty behavior. If you keep them on the run, they’ll get tired and quit. However, some will not, and, unfortunately, our most violent groups are the ones that don’t engage in flyering. They see flyering as ineffective (because it is, because we make it so when we stand up to it). There is a possibility that flyering allows such groups to “blow off steam” (which isn’t innocent—real people get hurt) that they might otherwise funnel into mass violence. That’s not a reason not to act against flyering, but it is a reminder that the absence of flyering doesn’t guarantee an absence of racism (of course not) or the threat of violence. In countries with far stricter regulations of hate speech, we do find that fewer people engage in it, but that doesn’t mean that violence disappears. What’s worse, because of the easy access to guns in the US, we see more “lone wolf” (which is never really “lone”—it is always socially supported) violence. So, while I’m not arguing against fighting back against flyering, we have to recognize that making these haters feel ineffective, while that will discourage most of them, may also energize some of them to greater violence.


Have a story of success in countering hate on your campus? I’d love to hear it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s