The words went well beyond ugly. Beyond indecent. Even beyond racist. They conjured up old angers, fears and memories of violence.
The words appeared on a well-known wall of North Carolina's largest public university, there for students, faculty and passers-by to read.
Painted on the Free Expression Tunnel, the pedestrian portal linking one side of N.C. State University's campus to the other, was: “Shoot Obama.” Near it was: “Kill that n-----,” spelling out the word.
The First Amendment protects free speech, but its protections are not unlimited and should not protect this speech. The state's public universities all need a clear policy stating that threats of violence cross a line and will have consequences.
Do not mistake this as a lack of support for the First Amendment. The Founders wanted Americans to be allowed to say unpopular and provocative things without fear of government silencing them. That includes reprehensible, even racist, language. Allowing such speech is the rent we pay for an open society that fosters robust discussion about public issues and permits dissension from authority.
N.C. State Chancellor James Oblinger said, “When we lower ourselves to engaging in racist characterizations and inappropriate statements of anger and hate, we make a mockery of our right to free speech.”
The Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP, urged immediate action against the students and said this kind of racist speech is not protected speech.
We believe racist speech and inappropriate statements of anger are protected under the Constitution.
But they can cross a line, and the four State students responsible for this graffiti did. Whether it's spray paint on a tunnel or a tirade from the steps of the administration building, threats of violence go beyond First Amendment protections. Higher education is not a right, it's a privilege, and the university should have a policy making clear its right to punish such threats, up to and including expulsion.
It's heartening to know that the students behind the hate speech were in a distinct minority. Some students, appalled at the expression of vicious intolerance, painted over it with other messages: “Don't hate” and “Ashamed to be white.” A few days later 500 students attended a rally to protest the racist graffiti.
Campus officials and the U.S. Secret Service investigated the incident. The Secret Service determined there was no real threat to President-elect Obama. The Wake District Attorney's Office concluded there was no violation of the state's hate crimes law.
But the university community is within its rights to condemn that speech and to develop minimum standards for what's acceptable and what's not.