UGA panel hears arguments after racially charged campus speech dispute



A University of Georgia graduate student defended himself Friday at a hearing against a complaint he violated its student code of conduct in a dispute that centered around race and the boundaries of freedom of expression rights.

The student, Irami Osei-Frimpong, and his supporters believe the complaint against him, that he purposefully omitted a 2011 trespassing arrest from his admissions application, is a veiled attempt to remove him from campus for racially charged statements he made at a meeting that were posted online in January.

Osei-Frimpong, an African American teaching assistant studying philosophy, made comments such as “some white people may have to die for black communities to be made whole in this struggle to advance to freedom.” His critics argued the comments advocated violence against whites and want him expelled. He denies any desire to incite violence and only wants to spark more conversation about racial inequities.

Osei-Frimpong waived his federal privacy rights and allowed public access to the hearing, which drew a packed audience that required the university to arrange for people to listen to the hearing via speakerphone in overflow areas.

He was accused of falsely filling out his graduate school application in December 2015 because he didn’t mention his prior studies at the University of Chicago and answered no to whether he had been charged or convicted of anything other than a minor traffic offense. The penalties for falsely filling out graduate school application forms includes dismissal.

The three-student panel who heard the case will likely issue a decision in about a week.

>> PREVIOUS COVERAGE | UGA assistant under fire for racially-charged comments about whites

Osei-Frimpong vigorously defended himself during the six-hour hearing, at some points conducting what was akin to a classroom lecture. Five witnesses testified as part of his defense.

“I know this is long, but this is my one and only pass at this,” he said.

At one point during the hearing, Osei-Frimpong said the complaint against him is an attempt to "chill" his speech rights. Some organizations agreed. Three groups earlier this month wrote a joint letter to the university's president, Jere Morehead, demanding he dismiss the complaint.

“By failing to reaffirm that Osei-Frimpong’s speech was protected by the First Amendment, UGA sends the message that it will go to great lengths to punish speakers who offend ideological critics or donors,” the letter said.

Others, though, were outraged by some of his remarks and threatened to withhold donations. University officials said in a statement a few days after the threats, that the administration “condemn(s) the advocacy or suggestion of violence in any form” and was seeking legal options.

Near the end of January, the university received an anonymous call that Osei-Frimpong omitted mentioning an October 2011 arrest for participating in an Occupy Wall Street protest during his studies at the University of Chicago. An Illinois judge dismissed the charges against him, so he said he answered the question about prior charges or convictions correctly. Osei-Frimpong studied political science at the University of Chicago. He said he was thinking about schools where he studied philosophy when he answered the question about his past studies.

“I don’t know about this conspiracy I’m hiding my arrest,” Osei-Frimpong said during the hearing. “I live a public life.”

Cheri Bliss, the university’s director of graduate student services, said in response to his questions during the hearing the application requires full disclosure.

“It’s a concern you did not list (attending the University of Chicago),” Bliss told him.