Pitt students harass classmate while denouncing hate speech

A University of Pittsburgh student claims he and his family have been anonymously harassed over dismissive tweets he sent about students who felt “triggered” by a recent Milo Yiannopoulos lecture.

Yiannopoulos spoke at the invitation of Pitt College Republicans on February 29, and the following day CR member Doug Steeber attended a public Student Government forum that was held to discuss student complaints about funding for the event, which the senators claimed they were bound to provide under their own by-laws.

Steeber live-tweeted highlights from the forum—as did a reporter for the student newspaper—and while he mainly related direct quotes and straightforward observations, he occasionally offered his own commentary (such as “I’m confused” and “apparently trigger warnings aren’t enough”), arousing the ire of several of his classmates.

“During the meeting, I was screamed at for posting the tweets, and later that night I deleted my Twitter account hoping it would all blow over,” Steeber told Campus Reform. “Unfortunately, it didn’t,” and in subsequent days multiple fraudulent Facebook accounts were created in his name, including one that listed his parents’ home address, and at least one flyer was found on campus displaying their home phone number.

The flyer, which was removed by a friend of Steeber’s who came across it on campus, features a large photo of Steeber, below which is a fake first-person account stating that Steeber enjoys attending Student Government meetings “to photograph and make fun of sexual assault survivors on Twitter.” It then adds, threateningly, “we [sic] aren’t the only ones who did this at said meeting but, rest assured, steps are being taken so that all of my friends come clean.”

The flyer ends by suggesting that anyone who has “any issues with this kind of behavior” should call him at his home phone number, where they might also have the opportunity to speak with his parents, both of whom are mentioned by name.

Although he was out of town at the time the flyer and social media accounts appeared, Steeber told Campus Reform that “my parents have received a number of hang-up calls, many of them late at night,” and that his mother even received an email asking if she was home at the time, all of which he attributes to individuals inspired by the negative attention directed at him.

Other students who felt “triggered” by Yiannopoulos’ appearance took a somewhat different tack, according to Pitt News, by hosting a formal “safe space” event Thursday evening for students to share their feelings about the lecture “without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe,” as one organizer put it.

Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner attended the student-run forum, where he weighed in on the question of allowing speakers like Yiannopoulos on campus, saying that while Student Government is obligated to be “viewpoint neutral,” the university as a whole is not.

“The University is not neutral as to who we are and what we do. We are very serious about diversity and inclusion,” Bonner reassured the aggrieved students. “We’re not where we want to be, but we know where we want to be. No one can come to this community and change who we are.”

The following day, Friday, Intercollegiate Studies Institute President Christopher Long came to Steeber’s defense, sending a letter to Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher requesting a statement denouncing the political harassment of Steeber and affirming the institution’s support for free speech generally.

“I am writing out of concern for the personal safety of one of your students,” Long told Gallagher, recounting that within the preceding 48 hours, Steever “has been the victim of an on-campus postering and social media campaign that encourages harassment and threats against his person.”

After describing the nature of the harassment, Long remarks that “the behavior is apparently a reaction to innocent and inoffensive social media tweets,” adding suggestively that “I … fully anticipate that you and your office will agree to investigate the matter immediately and do everything within your power to put an end to the harassment and potentially threatening behavior designed to chill free speech and intimidate Mr. Steeber.”

Long also took issue with Bonner’s comments at the “safe space” event, saying his assertions about the university’s non-neutrality have the potential to “institutionally privilege speech by students associated with” the groups that organized the event “while demeaning, belittling, and potentially encouraging the threatening of students associated with the College Republicans.”

Moreover, he added, Bonner’s statements “may empower some students to feel free to silence fellow students whom they feel either agree with or do not sufficiently disagree with much of what Mr. Yiannopoulos had to say … in defense of unfettered freedom of political expression.”

Steeber told Campus Reform that he has yet to receive a response to Long’s letter, or indeed any communication at all from the administration regarding his situation. Campus Reform contacted the university for comment, but had not received a response by press time.

On the same day that Long sent his letter, a coalition of student groups calling itself the Student Diversity Council released a statement likewise endorsing “respectful, intellectual, and thought-provoking conversations from all different points of views [sic]” and condemning “hate speech.”

Incredibly, though, the Diversity Council focuses not on the harassment of Steeber for his political views, but rather on the alleged threat to free speech posed by Yiannopoulos’ address, which they assert “was found to primarily be an opportunity taken to promote hate speech and incite anger.

“Having a speaker who challenged ideas in a respectful manner could easily have been achieved and accepted,” the statement continues. “However, the event instead degraded minority groups and their social movements, verbally harassed said groups, created a triggering environment for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, as well as created a charged environment against the ‘other’ group in attendance and on campus.”

Without referring to Steeber by name, the Diversity Council also condemns pro-speech students “who jeered at protesters … as well as wrote threatening comments,” claiming such actions qualify as “online harassment” and asking the university to require that future speakers “be liable to provide safe environment” for the protection of students who might be upset by the views being presented.

“This statement claims to support free speech, while at the same time demanding censorship of differing opinions under the guise of ‘hate speech,’” Steeber said in response to the statement. “The Pitt Promise values the freedom of thought and expression, yet there are calls to stop diversity of speech.”

“Unfortunately, this is just another example of the tactics of intimidation used by so many of our peers on the left,” opined Arnaud Armstrong, VP of the Pitt CR’s. “What is so ironic about this, though, is that it is those who preach the loudest about the virtues of tolerance who seem to be practicing it the least.”

“While we fully anticipated some degree of backlash as a result of bringing a controversial speaker to campus, we never imagined that it could escalate to this level of utter hatred, harassment, and attempted censorship of our right to free speech,” added Hannah Smith, Public Relations Director for the CR’s. “Unfortunately, this is the sad reality of so many college campuses today, where the prospect for open exchange of ideas is cast aside in favor of protecting feelings.”

This article will be updated if and when Pitt provides comment.

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