Culture

Fabricating hate

Culture | Fake hate crimes plague colleges, but some threats are for real

Issue: "A vacation from PC," June 3, 2000

The first e-mail threat came to the University of Iowa campus March 28. The "Minorityrid Committee" demanded that College of Dentistry administrators remove all minority students from the school within three days. Two days later Minorityrid e-mailed eight students, telling them to fear for their lives and families. On April 18 several individuals at the dental college received e-mailed bomb threats. Investigators eventually tracked down the on-campus computer used to send the e-mails. Surveillance cameras showed that the Minorityrid Committee was actually Tarsha Claiborne, a 23-year-old black dental student. She underwent psychiatric evaluation at the University of Iowa Hospital and then was allowed to return to her home in Baton Rouge, La. She now faces six counts of third-degree harassment, one count of threats in violation of individual rights, and criminal trespass as a hate crime. Her next court date has not been set. Ms. Claiborne, a graduate of Xavier University in New Orleans, has been diagnosed with depression. Her alleged behavior baffled her classmates, who say that she acted as scared as other minority students about the threats. Her father died last year, and classmate Garritt Draper suspects that pressure to get good grades (she failed a class last year) was getting to her. "She had her struggles in the classes, that's for sure," he told WORLD. "Maybe she just didn't want to seem like she was a failure so she decided to do this." This is the latest in a rash of campus hate-crime reports and hoaxes. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last year that since 1997 police have discovered that headline-making claims of hate crimes on five other campuses were fabricated. Two weeks after homosexual student Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming in the fall of 1998, a lesbian senior at St. Cloud (Minn.) State University claimed she was punched and cut by two slur-yelling men. The reward fund for information on her attackers reached $12,000 before she confessed that there was no attack. Some threats, though, are for real. In December a federal grand jury added hate-crime charges to the list filed against Lawrence Lombardi, 41, who is accused of setting off pipe bombs last fall in restrooms at Florida A&M University, a predominantly black school. No one at the 12,000-student campus was injured in the blasts, which were accompanied by racist phone calls to a local television station. Mr. Lombardi has pleaded not guilty. The FBI, the Civil Rights Enforcement Section of the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, and the Temple University Police are investigating a wave of e-mail threats that targeted 26 minority students at Penn State last November; the e-mails originated from a Temple computer lab. Authorities are still searching for clues, and Penn State police spokesman Thomas E. Sowerby said, "Anyone is a suspect at this point." Campus hoaxers often go unpunished. Harvey A. Silverglate of Silverglate and Good law firm specializes in campus criminal defense and civil liberties. "It is very rare to have a student hoaxer prosecuted," Mr. Silverglate said, and it usually happens only after police spend public resources investigating the threat. Mr. Silverglate is also frustrated with the trend toward hate-crimes legislation. "I am a liberal," he stressed, "and I do not take the position that there is no such thing as historically disadvantaged groups. I think it is obvious from history that black people have had a harder time than whites. There has been a history of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and lynching. I do not blind myself to that. What I do think is absolutely wrong and unlawful is to place people who belong in these racial and ethnic groups into a category that has different rights than other people." Using publicity about hate-crime incidents, President Clinton is pushing to revive a stagnant bill that would add offenses motivated by sexual orientation, gender, or disability to the list of hate crimes already covered under federal law. That would also make it easier for federal prosecutors to file hate-crime charges. Mr. Silverglate, calling for "equal protection under the law," argues that "it is unlawful and immoral to endow different groups with different rights based on nothing other than their race or their sex or their sexual orientation."

-Michael Mallie is a WORLD Journalism Institute fellow

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