In May, the Feminist Majority Foundation filed a federal Title IX complaint against the University of Mary Washington, alleging that the school had ignored anonymous threats made on the social media app Yik Yak against a campus feminist group, Feminists United on Campus (FUC). The complaint also suggested those threats were linked to the murder of one of the group’s members, Grace Mann, whose housemate is accused of strangling her to death. Neither of those things appears to be true.

In a scathing letter sent to the Feminist Majority Foundation today, UMW President Rick Hurley said several aspects of the Title IX complaint are “demonstrably false,” saying they’ve worked to respond to the FUC members’ safety concerns and addressed the Yik Yak threats to the extent permissible under federal law.

In March, Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan wrote about the battle between FUC and the campus rugby team, launched after a few members of the team sang an offensive chant at a party. Most of the team wasn’t present at the party; nonetheless, all rugby activities were temporarily suspended. The suspension launched a volley of furious and frequently crude messages on Yik Yak, including one that said, “Gonna tie these feminists to a radiator and grape them in the mouth,” a line from a sketch by the comedy troupe Whitest Kids U Know.

In April, FUC member Grace Mann was strangled to death at her home. Mann’s housemate, 30-year-old Steven Vander Briel, has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with the crime.

FUC’s Title IX complaint mentions Mann’s murder, saying she was killed shortly after returning home from a protest led by the group, and mentioning that Vander Briel was formerly a member of the campus rugby team. (The USA Rugby League tells Jezebel: “Steven Vander Briel was not, and never has been a registered member of USA Rugby. We have no records of him ever even attempting to register and have no data to show that he was even affiliated with the University of Mary Washington’s team.”)

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Hurley’s letter to Feminist Majority says it’s misleading to even call all of the Yik Yak comments threatening. He says, too, that one of them specifically referenced then-FUC President Paige McKinsey, the school made arrangements for her to be escorted by campus police to an event where she was speaking:

Some of the Yik Yak comments were certainly offensive and appear alarming in isolation, but must be placed in context. In particular, two of the comments highlighted in the complaint (and repeated most often in the press) are a direct quote from a sketch by the comedy group Whitest Kids U Know and a paraphrase of dialogue by a character on the television show “American Horror Story: Freak Show.” In the single instance where Yik Yak commenters suggested that concerns be addressed directly to Ms. McKinsey at a public meeting where she was scheduled to speak, UMW made specific arrangements for campus police to escort Ms. McKinsey throughout the evening in question, although she did not request such protection from Campus Police.

Hurley also attacks the Title IX complaint for implying some kind of connection between the Yik Yak comments and Mann’s murder:

By far, the most troubling aspect of FUC’s and the Feminist Majority Foundation’s complaint is the implication that there is a connection between the concerns raised by members of FUC and the murder of Grace Mann. Grace’s death was a terrible tragedy, but it is irresponsible for FUC and the Feminist Majority Foundation to opine that it was related to the rise in explicit and offensive comments on Yik Yak. Ms. Mann was killed in her off-campus house, and her housemate has been arrested for the murder. The housemate is a 31-year-old part-time student who returned to UMW to complete his degree after an eight-year absence. And contrary to misinformation in the media, the suspect in Grace’s death was not a member of the current rugby club (and had not been a part of that club since 2006), nor does it appear that he was friends with members of the current rugby team. Moreover, prior to Ms. Mann’s death, UMW received no reports of threatening or inappropriate behavior by the housemate since his return to campus.

Through a FOIA request, Jezebel also obtained emails between campus administrators, including Raymond Tuttle, the Director of Judicial affairs and Community Responsibility, and Melissa L. Jones, the Assistant Dean for Student Involvement. The emails show that campus administrators were aware of the brewing controversy between FUC and the rugby team, and swiftly began making plans to punish the team.

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Hurley concludes his letter by calling the Yik Yak comments “reprehensible and offensive,” but cautions against making “false allegations,” subtly referencing the UVA shitshow. He accused FUC and the Feminist Majority Foundation of making a “speculative connection” in Mann’s death that could bring further grief to her family.

The reprehensible and offensive comments posted on Yik Yak are inconsistent with UMW’s values. Nevertheless, as we have seen recently with other institutions, the publication of unsubstantiated allegations and false narratives hurts not only the reputation of the affected institutions but also the reputation of the proponents who fail to investigate before taking their concerns public. And in this case, the speculative connection FUC and the Feminist Majority Foundation claim exists between Grace Mann’s death and Yik Yak commenters spreads misinformation, and worse yet, it adds undue pain for the grieving Mann family.

Marty Morrison, the director of Media and Public Relations at the UMW, confirmed to Jezebel that the university sent the letter to Feminist Majority, and that they’d sent it to a number of media outlets at the same time. She declined to comment further, saying only, “I think the letter speaks for itself.”

Here’s the full letter from Hurley:

Dear Ms. Smeal:

I write to respond to the allegations raised in the Title IX complaint filed against the University of Mary Washington, which we understand the Feminist Majority Foundation funded and recklessly publicized. As an initial matter, we were surprised to learn that you scheduled a press conference onMay 7 to publicize the allegations in the complaint, particularly because we had already scheduled to meet with you on June 3 to discuss concerns raised by student members of Feminists United on Campus (“FUC”). You did not inform us of your intent to hold such a press conference. Instead, you sought media attention to publicize the fact of the filing of – and the irresponsible allegations in – the complaint. It is regrettable that you chose to preempt the opportunity to meet with me to gather information to assess the concerns being raised by a handful of UMW students.

The primary premise of the complaint is that UMW “ignored” students’ concerns regarding comments made on the social media app Yik Yak. That allegation is demonstrably false. With the recent rise in popularity of this app, which allows anonymous postings by individuals within a 10-mile radius, UMW and colleges across the United States have been struggling to balance their utmost concern for the safety and welfare of students with the First Amendment rights of anonymous posters. UMW has met this challenge head on. As you know, I have had more than one in-person meeting with FUC’s leadership to discuss their concerns. We have consulted with legal counsel on permissible actions we might take to limit Yik Yak’s impact on campus. We have worked extensively with our Title IX coordinator to facilitate an open dialogue on campus among students regarding sexual assault and harassment. We provided extra security – including a campus escort – for an FUC member who reported comments that could be considered a true threat. In late March, we sent a campus-wide email reminding all students that the University takes seriously any threats and encouraging even anonymous ones to be reported to Campus Police and to our Title IX officer. We received no reports after this reminder. We also encouraged reporting threats directly to Yik Yak.

Although I understand that FUC may be upset that UMW has not ceded to its demands to ban Yik Yak from campus, it is important to understand that as a public university, UMW is obligated to comply with all federal laws – not just Title IX. The First Amendment prohibits prior restraints on speech, and banning Yik Yak is tantamount to a content-based prohibition on speech. (And in any event, banning Yik Yak from UMW’s network would be ineffective because students could still access the app using their personal wireless data plans.) I trust that FUC and the Feminist Majority Foundation – two groups that regularly exercise their civil right to petition the government and engage in protected First Amendment speech – understand and appreciate these concerns.

Indeed, the majority of the offending Yik Yak comments submitted with FUC’s complaint demonstrate the point. Most were reactions to an op-ed piece that then-FUC president, Paige McKinsey, wrote, submitted, and had published in the UMW student newspaper. In that op-ed, Ms. McKinsey asserted that there was an “insidious misogyny and hatred very much alive at UMW.” In support of that position, she cited the effort by some students to establish a Greek system on campus and the actions of certain members of the men’s rugby club in singing an obscene chant at an off-campus party. Ms. McKinsey is the only student referenced by name in any of the Yik Yak comments included with the complaint, and those comments primarily refer to the opinions she expressed in her public statement. Some of the Yik Yak comments were certainly offensive and appear alarming in isolation, but must be placed in context. In particular, two of the comments highlighted in the complaint (and repeated most often in the press) are a direct quote from a sketch by the comedy group Whitest Kids U Know and a paraphrase of dialogue by a character on the television show “American Horror Story: Freak Show.” In the single instance where Yik Yak commenters suggested that concerns be addressed directly to Ms. McKinsey at a public meeting where she was scheduled to speak, UMW made specific arrangements for campus police to escort Ms. McKinsey throughout the evening in question, although she did not request such protection from Campus Police.

Moreover, UMW does not have the legal authority to demand that Yik Yak provide the names and contact information of the posters of offensive material. Yik Yak’s policy is to cooperate with law enforcement professionals investigating actionable threats, but Yik Yak will not disclose user account information unless required by law to do so. In addition, Yik Yak does not require users to provide their real names, phone numbers, email or mailing addresses, or other identifying information, so any ability to track down posters to hold them personally accountable is limited.

By far, the most troubling aspect of FUC’s and the Feminist Majority Foundation’s complaint is the implication that there is a connection between the concerns raised by members of FUC and the murder of Grace Mann. Grace’s death was a terrible tragedy, but it is irresponsible for FUC and the Feminist Majority Foundation to opine that it was related to the rise in explicit and offensive comments on Yik Yak. Ms. Mann was killed in her off-campus house, and her housemate has been arrested for the murder. The housemate is a 31-year-old part-time student who returned to UMW to complete his degree after an eight-year absence. And contrary to misinformation in the media, the suspect in Grace’s death was not a member of the current rugby club (and had not been a part of that club since 2006), nor does it appear that he was friends with members of the current rugby team. Moreover, prior to Ms. Mann’s death, UMW received no reports of threatening or inappropriate behavior by the housemate since his return to campus.

Although Ms. Mann was involved with FUC, neither Ms. Mann nor any member of FUC reported to Campus Police or University administrators that she was a target of any anonymous threats on Yik Yak. To date, we have not identified any such threat. Furthermore, Ms. Mann’s role as a student leader allowed her to develop a close personal relationship with our Title IX coordinator and with UMW’s Dean of Students. Indeed, they were both invited to speak at her funeral and were honored to do so. Had Grace felt scared or threatened in her last semester on campus, she never mentioned as much to either of these individuals.

Other than the fact that Ms. Mann’s housemate played rugby eight years ago, and Ms. Mann was a member of FUC, the Feminist Majority Foundation and FUC have not identified any evidence that Ms. Mann’s death is linked in any way to her activities with FUC – much less that it is related to threatening posts on Yik Yak. Unfortunately, this unsubstantiated connection has attracted much attention from the media. But at the end of the day, pursuing a media campaign based on speculation is likely to undermine FMF’s and UMW’s mutual goal of affecting positive change.

UMW is committed to fostering a supportive, safe and positive environment for all of our students – men and women alike. The reprehensible and offensive comments posted on Yik Yak are inconsistent with UMW’s values. Nevertheless, as we have seen recently with other institutions, the publication of unsubstantiated allegations and false narratives hurts not only the reputation of the affected institutions but also the reputation of the proponents who fail to investigate before taking their concerns public. And in this case, the speculative connection FUC and the Feminist Majority Foundation claim exists between Grace Mann’s death and Yik Yak commenters spreads misinformation, and worse yet, it adds undue pain for the grieving Mann family.

In the future, I encourage you to explore fully the allegations you hear from students before you initiate a highly-publicized media campaign with unsubstantiated claims and misinformation. In addition to the electronic copy of this letter, a hard copy has been mailed to your office.

Richard V. Hurley

President, University of Mary Washington


Contact the author at anna.merlan@jezebel.com.
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