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University of Denver revokes admission over ‘deeply offensive photo,’ won’t say what policy student violated

May have breached its contract with him

The next time you’re applying for admission to universities, do some research on their history of throwing current and prospective students under the bus for violating their vaguely stated “values.”

The University of Denver revoked admission to a white student depicted on Snapchat in what appears to be a mud mask, with the caption “I’m a nigger.” The photo and his name had already gone viral.

Yet the administration declined to tell The College Fix what policy or policies he violated, or even if it determined that the student shared the photo himself or wrote the caption for it.

“While we welcome students of all backgrounds, races, and religious and political persuasions, students at DU do need to share and live by our values, including equity, inclusion, and respect for diversity in all its forms,” reads an uncredited statement from DU media relations emailed to The Fix. “This student clearly did not exercise those values.” It refused to answer followup questions.

The private university tweeted Tuesday that it was “aware of an unacceptable & deeply offensive photo that appeared on social media,” and said it had begun “a serious investigation.” It gave no policy justification for investigating off-campus online speech that did not target a specific person or group.

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“We are making a clear & unequivocal statement now: No instance of racism or prejudice is acceptable at DU,” the university continued: “On this, we are unified and unwavering.” The Snapchat image was reported to DU admissions by “Jessica,” according to an email screenshot posted by the same person who made the student’s identity public.

DU took less than a day to revoke the student’s admission, lumping in the news with its “senior leadership” statement Tuesday on the killing of black people by police and others and even “the systemic racism demonstrated by Amy Cooper in Central Park.” (Cooper is a typical white female liberal professional.)

“And the nature and types of racist actions and expressions just keep coming,” it continued:

Overnight the University was made aware of a deeply offensive photo that appeared on social media by a prospective student. Not only was the photo itself racist, it served as another stark reminder of the kind of issues faced by people of color in this country every day.

We will not tolerate this at the University of Denver. Whether microaggressions or full-throated assaults, no instance of racism or prejudice has any place here. The University has rescinded the student’s admission offer and they will not be attending DU.

The statement was signed by not only Chancellor Jeremy Haefner and several vice chancellors and deans, but also by General Counsel Paul Chan, suggesting the legal team blessed the proposal to revoke admission in lightning speed. DU posted a shorter announcement on Instagram the next day.

Conduct hard to fit under written policies

By including “microaggressions” with “assaults,” the university is telling students – prospective and enrolled – that their freedom of expression is sharply curtailed at the private university. The open question remains what DU policy, if any, authorizes the school to potentially void its contracts with students.

Its statement to The Fix only put students on vague notice what they must do to remain in good standing: “share and live by our values, including equity, inclusion, and respect for diversity in all its forms.”

DU’s speech-related policies, rated by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, do not seem to explicitly apply to the depiction of the student in the image, whom DU has not even said wrote the caption.

It was too fleeting – Snapchat posts disappear as soon as every recipient has viewed them – and and likely not targeted enough to violate the harassment policy. The honor code has similarly vague and unenforceable expectations required of students – “Integrity, Respect, and Responsibility” – as the school mentioned in its statement to The Fix.

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The best fit for the image, assuming the student shared it himself and wrote the caption, might be DU’s bias response policy, which defines bias incidents as “any behaviors … that target individuals or groups based on their actual or perceived group identities.” But again, the university refuses to even confirm that the student shared the image himself, much less whom he shared it with.

The DU community has seen the fleeting image not because a prospective student shared it with them, but because one or more people with whom the image was shared made it go viral.

Among the questions the unidentified DU media relations account refused to answer: whether it had a contract with the student by accepting him for enrollment; if such a contract gave the school explicit discretion to take it back, such as a morality clause; whether revoking it constitutes breach of contract, subject to legal action; and if it would have revoked admission had the student simply shared the image and not the caption.

The account also declined to connect The Fix with its Office of General Counsel to discuss the legal issues involved. Unlike many universities, the account did not cite student privacy law as its excuse for declining comment. (The Fix reminded the university the student’s identity was public and it had already publicly called him a racist, removing the rationale of student privacy law.)

Read the university’s statement.

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IMAGE: Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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