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Campus Hate Speech Challenges UNR Administration

UNR was thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight in 2017 when one of its students was photographed at the violent  white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a counter-protestor was killed and several more injured when a neo-Nazi rammed his car into a crowd.

In the years since, there have been several incidents of on-campus hate speech at UNR, including swastikas  spray-painted on walls and carved into dorms.

Earlier this month, faculty members published an open letter calling on the university’s administration to  investigate white nationalist activity on campus.

And last week, UNR President Marc Johnson published a response  condemning hate speech and calling for dialogue.

UNLV has also been the target of hate speech. That campus was threatened with a mass shooting aimed at Black students, which made headlines and caused some classes to be canceled.

Hannah Alterwitz is a student at UNR, who has been on campus throughout the recent spate of hate incidents. She’s also an intern with Hillel of Northern Nevada, an organization serving Jewish students in the area.

She said she has personally experienced antisemitism and was even beaten when she was growing up in Las Vegas because she's Jewish.

Alterwitz isn't surprised by racism because she believes it is everywhere. What did surprise her when she moved to Reno to go to school was the size of the city and lack of diversity.

She believes that the lack of diversity is part of the reason extreme views have flourished.

"Because when you don't diverse people and you don't interact with diverse people, it is easier to be scared or hateful of those people," she said.

Atty Garfinkel-Berry is the Executive Director of Hillel of Northern Nevada. She said there have been nine swastika-related incidents on campus this year. Two of them were directed at African American students.

"Which says this is not just an issue of antisemitism, this is an issue of bias as a whole," she said, "This is an issue of we have bigoted people." 

She said it shows the bigots have become more proactive. However, her organization and the school administrators often can do little about incidents of hate speech because even though it is offensive it is still speech protected by the First Amendment.

Eloisa Gordon-Mora is UNR’s Diversity and Inclusion Officer. She's been in her position since the summer. She said she knew about the displays of racism and antisemitism at the university when she took the job.

She said it is part of the rise in deplorable events happening around the country and the world.

Gordon-Mora believes education is one of the best ways to counterbalance the rise in hate.

"There are many things that have to be done and can be done," she said, "One solution to the problem of hate, among other things, we have to better educate around these issues."

She said people need to be educated on what is hate speech and what to do when someone says something hateful. 

Simon Gottschalk is a Sociology Professor at UNLV. His recent work analyzes online hate speech and the  motivation behind white supremacist extremism.

He said from his analysis of hate online he has found the common thread is emotions of anger, fear and a desire for revenge. He said people who express racism and antisemitism online are in fear of white genocide and no amount of facts change their minds.

One of the biggest problems, however, is trying to determine when hate speech becomes an action based on that hate.

"The trigger is hard to figure out," he said, "Meaning we know that violence, those kinds of violence, probably emerge from that mixture of fear and anger and their desire for revenge. Now, where's the trigger that transforms those very intense negative emotions into actual physical violence. Is it because of a misperception that the danger is imminent? Is it because of a misperception that the enemy is momentarily vulnerable?"

He said there are different sociological and psychology models that have tried to answer that question but from his analysis, he hasn't been able to pinpoint that trigger.

Hannah Alterwitz, student, University of Nevada, Reno;  Atty Garfinkel-Berry, Executive Director, Hillel of Northern Nevada; Eloisa Gordon-Mora, Diversity and Inclusion Officer, University of Nevada, Reno;  Simon Gottschalk, Sociology Professor, UNLV

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Bert is a reporter and producer based in Reno, where he covers the state legislature and stories that resonate across Nevada. He began his career in journalism after studying abroad during the summer of 2011 in Egypt, during the Arab Spring. Before he joined Nevada Public Radio and Capital Public Radio, Bert was a contributor at KQED and the Sacramento News & Review. He was also a photographer, video editor and digital producer at the East Bay Express.