More than one month after a viral video showing a verbal conflict between a philosophy teaching assistant and student was posted on Facebook, conversations regarding the racial and legal implications of the teaching assistant’s speech are still happening.
The University of Georgia was at the center of a nationwide conversation after that video was posted on Facebook on Jan. 16. The video shows teaching assistant Irami Osei-Frimpong arguing with former UGA student Andrew Lawrence about racial issues. This has brought the university employee’s previous social media posts to light.
There is a way in which White people in the South learn manners as a series of behaviors the way autistic kids learn to read social cues for behaviors. Except since these guys and gals aren't autistic, I just feel like I'm around a bunch of sociopaths.— Irami Osei-Frimpong (@IramiOF) August 13, 2018
Then when that downpayment, wedding, HOUSE gets delivered by White family wealth, these kids think, "Well, I did it myself because I, too, had to work at Chick fil-A."— Irami Osei-Frimpong (@IramiOF) July 6, 2018
On Jan. 18, two days after the video was released, UGA issued a statement that they were “unaware of any allegation of racially hostile or discriminatory conduct in the course of [Osei-Frimpong’s] professional duties or any statements falling outside of First Amendment protections.”
After the Lawrence posted the video, he went on to call for university alumni to pull their donations. Media outlets picked up the story. Two days later on Jan. 20, UGA released another statement.
UGA’s second statement said the university would be “seeking guidance from the Office of the Attorney General as to what actions we can legally consider in accordance with the First Amendment.”
The university has not taken any further action or released any statements since. As of Jan. 25, UGA was still working with the attorney general, according to Greg Trevor, UGA’s executive director for media communications.
First Amendment questions
The video, originally posted by Lawrence, displayed an argument between him and Osei-Frimpong at a Young Democrats of UGA meeting on Sept. 12. The Young Dems hosted the TA because of his activism in the community, said Jack Henry Decker, communications director of Young Democrats of UGA.
The video at the meeting showed Lawrence confronting Osei-Frimpong about previous social media posts.
“You can say things that people don’t agree with, you can say things that might offend people, but when you’re a university employee, the comments that you make are a reflection of the university,” Lawrence said. “You’re a representative of the university.”
Osei-Frimpong has said his comments are not “that controversial.”
“We’re not in college to sugarcoat the truth. We’re in college to figure out what’s going on, figure out its logic [and] how these ideas are produced and sustained.”
— Irami Osei-Frimpong, UGA teaching assistant
One of Osei-Frimpong’s now-deleted comments on Facebook said: “Some white people may have to die for black communities to be made whole in this struggle to advance to freedom,” which he said was in reference to Heather Heyer, a white woman who died protesting with Black Lives Matter at the 2017 Charlottesville white supremacist rally.
Despite criticism of his remarks, Osei-Frimpong believes he’s drawing attention to an important issue of “black economic inclusion,” which he calls “the last stage of freedom.”
“I’m not going to let that quest for truth get distracted by what some people think my words might make some other people do,” Osei-Frimpong said. “We’re not in college to sugarcoat the truth. We’re in college to figure out what’s going on, figure out its logic [and] how these ideas are produced and sustained.”
“You can say things that people don’t agree with, you can say things that might offend people, but when you’re a university employee, the comments that you make are a reflection of the university. You’re a representative of the university.”
— Andrew Lawrence, UGA Alumnus
This incident calls into question a larger issue of First Amendment protections for members of the university community, both as UGA affiliates and in their capacity as private citizens.
Racial harassment or discrimination “on campus, in connection with a University program or activity, or in a manner that creates a hostile environment for any member of the University Community” is prohibited by UGA’s Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy.
The AG will likely consider whether Osei-Frimpong’s comments were made in relation to his position as a UGA employee, UGA media law professor William Lee said. Osei-Frimpong’s comments on social media will likely be considered in his role as a private citizen, separately from his UGA employee role.
However, if the comments he made in his class created a “hostile environment [in class],” then “appropriate disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal or expulsion” can be directed at him as an instructor, according to the NDAH Policy.
Such comments must be “pervasive” and “persistent” for the instructor to create a “hostile environment,” Lee said. An isolated incident of a racial comment would not create such a situation.
The university has previously come under criticism for its handling of controversial speech, most recently when Adam Sasser, a UGA baseball player, was dismissed from the team after yelling racial slurs during a football game in September.
Racial history on campus
Beyond the issue of academic freedom, history professor and union member Susan Mattern said UGA’s reaction to this incident reflects an underlying issue of ignorance toward racism on campus. Her office and classroom in LeConte Hall serve as a constant reminder of UGA’s history with racism.
“To say that there’s no place for racism on campus when we have [LeConte Hall], named after this guy who was a scientific racist his whole life explaining to everybody how blacks were inferior to whites,” Mattern said. “It is the most ridiculous statement to say that there’s no place for racism on campus.”
UGA also faced backlash after the unearthing of African-American graves during construction of Baldwin Hall in 2015. UGA’s refusal to publicly acknowledge its prior ties to slavery sparked protests among community members.
The university is not unfamiliar with UGA employees voicing racially charged statements. In 2011, UGA sociology professor Paul Roman was cleared of disciplinary consequences for Nazi references and inappropriate behavior. Despite accusations made against him, Roman, who is white, still teaches at UGA.
As a black student, senior sociology major Lerato Cummings said the discrepancies between the university’s reactions in Osei-Frimpong’s and Roman’s cases echo an underlying trend across UGA.
“It definitely creates a very strong understanding for me of who the university truly has the best interest of, and I don’t think it’s any person of color,” Cummings said.
Osei-Frimpong’s social media posts have spurred debate. People who criticize his rhetoric accuse him of racist speech and inciting violence, asking for his departure from UGA. Others emphasize his academic and expressive freedoms under the First Amendment.
The United Campus Workers of Georgia, a union for public university employees, publicly condemned UGA’s Jan. 20 statement for coming “perilously close” to complying with Campus Reform’s requests and its “attempts to squelch academic freedom” at UGA ” in a letter published on Jan. 28.
Others, such as sophomore marketing major Devon Spiva, believe Osei-Frimpong should be removed from his TA position, but not from the university as a student. Teachers are held to a higher standard for what they say, Spiva said.
“Inciting violence against others ... reflects on the university when they have a TA who makes these sort of comments,” Spiva said.
Adam Steinbaugh, the director of the individual rights defense program within the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, refuted claims of Osei-Frimpong’s words inciting violence. FIRE asked UGA to cease its investigation in a letter sent to UGA President Jere Morehead on Jan. 25.
“Discussing the theoretical possibility of violence is not incitement because it’s not encouraging people to undertake violence,” Steinbaugh said. “And even if it were, speech is only incitement under the First Amendment if it’s likely to actually occur imminently.”
As places where controversial topics arise in the classroom and often do, Steinbaugh said protecting speech in higher education settings is vital.
Because the university has yet to release a final statement, legal and racial questions still linger for the UGA community.
Maggie Holland contributed to this article.