Three days before Donald Trump's inauguration, political science associate professor Jack Turner was teaching a class on feminist political theory when a visibly upset student raised her hand and asked to be excused. When the student explained she'd seen two neo-Nazi recruitment flyers outside of Raitt Hall, Turner suggested the class go check them out. Upon discovering the signs, students tore the posters down.
"I didn't promote tearing them down or oppose it," Turner said. "To me, it was the students' very insurgent way of saying, 'Not on our campus.'"
When Turner wrote about the experience and subsequent class discussion on his Facebook page, the post went viral. As it spread, what started as thoughtful commentary quickly devolved into a storm of violent threats between neo-Nazis and antifascists. In the following days, Turner began receiving threatening Facebook messages, e-mails, and phone calls as part of a campaign of online harassment. His cell-phone number, which was publicly available online, was posted on the Daily Stormer, an online hub recognized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a neo-Nazi forum.
"Ironmarch.org has marked you," one person threatened in a voice mail. "You will be punished for your crimes. Soon."
Turner reported the voice mails to George Lovell, the political science department chair, who took proactive measures to make sure Turner was safe. In his interactions with campus administrators, Turner said he felt like "the university was on my side."
"Throughout that whole week, I was thinking: 'This is happening. Our immediate environment is becoming boldly white supremacist, boldly anti-Semitic, and boldly antigay,'" Turner said. "It's happening now, and we have to recognize that the danger is here."
That danger can be particularly hard to combat when it makes itself known through online harassment campaigns that seem purposefully designed to walk the complex, hard to enforce, and often misunderstood lines between constitutionally protected free speech, hate speech, illegal threats of violence, and violations of UW campus policies.
"The emergence of this new kind of harassment—online bullying and doxing—is something we are looking at," UW spokesperson Norman Arkans said in response to questions from The Stranger. "If we know the source of such harassment originates somewhere in our university community, we can deal with it. But frequently it is impossible to know where it is coming from and impossible to shield students from it. What we can do is provide tools and strategies for students to employ to shield themselves." Arkans said he could not go into detail about Turner's case—or the cases of two UW graduate students who recently experienced similar online harassment—"other than to say we have been engaged with them and have been working with them."
Doug Honig, spokesperson for the ACLU of Washington, also noted that there are limits to what law enforcement and administrators at a publicly funded university can do in response to speech that makes people feel uncomfortable.
"Basic constitutional principles—the First Amendment—protect the right to freedom of speech, including speech that may be very offensive or hateful, and state law cannot override this," Honig said. "The standard for limiting hateful speech is that it must be a 'true threat'—which is speech that communicates an intention to inflict imminent bodily harm against another person, where a reasonable person would believe the threat was likely to be actually carried out."
Three days after Jack Turner's fateful encounter with neo-Nazi recruitment flyers, the inauguration of Donald Trump spurred teach-ins and protests on campus. Later that day, Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right speaker most famous for being banned from Twitter last summer for his harassment of Saturday Night Live actor Leslie Jones, made an evening appearance at UW's Kane Hall. His supporters and anti-hate protesters clashed outside. Eventually, one of Yiannopoulos's supporters, a 29-year-old UW student, shot an antifascist protester in the stomach, claiming self-defense.
But that's not all that happened that day.
Earlier that afternoon, a coalition of UW students, faculty, and community members led a teach-in demonstration inside Odegaard Undergraduate Library as part of the National Student Strike, which protested Trump's swearing-in. There, organizers held workshops covering topics ranging from training activists with disabilities to analyzing how the university spends student tuition.
According to Yasi Naraghi and Alan-Michael Weatherford, two doctoral candidates in the UW comparative literature department, during the last workshop of the day—"How to Be an Ally to Undocumented Organizers"—two men came into the room and began trying to take photos and video of the workshop leaders. Naraghi and Weatherford believed those workshop leaders were undocumented students. One of the men later stationed himself in his truck beside the campus's George Washington statue, which stands just down a flight of stairs from Odegaard. From there, he took video of the students participating in the protest.
"A whole group of us went to [the undocumented students] and shielded them with scarves and jackets because people ran up to us trying to film them and get [photos of] their faces," Weatherford said.
After the students were safely escorted out of the library, Weatherford and Naraghi joined up with others who planned to march in downtown Seattle with other Inauguration Day protesters. But while waiting in line for the 70 bus on Campus Parkway, Weatherford noticed a man using his smartphone to film his group of friends. In terms of the letter of the law, there is nothing wrong with using a smartphone to film in public. In other contexts—for example, private citizens using smartphones to film public police actions—this kind of activity is often applauded. But Weatherford and Naraghi felt threatened. When attempts to block the man's camera with a cardboard sign failed, Weatherford said he approached the man and asked him to stop filming. The man refused and told him he was within his right to film in public.
After arguing about filming in public and whether the man was trying to "dox" the group, one of Weatherford's friends grabbed the phone from the man. They gave the phone back only when the man promised to stop filming. When the man began recording again, Weatherford and his group, all unsettled, got on a bus and left the man behind.
Then, at 4 a.m. on January 21, Weatherford woke up to a deluge of threatening messages in his school e-mail inbox, Facebook, Twitter, and RateMyProfessor.com teaching profile. He was linked to two 4chan forum threads, which included links to YouTube videos of his bus-stop confrontation with the man and posts sharing Weatherford's personal information, including his campus teaching schedule, which is only available to enrolled UW students, and even where his mother worked.
The messages he received were homophobic and transphobic and suggested physical and sexual assault. "Alan-Michael Weatherford IS A FAGGOT WHO NEEDS HIS HEAD SPLIT," read one message. "He once pulled me after class and tried to touch my p*nis when I asked if he could look at my assignment again," read a comment on his RateMyProfessor.com profile. "W-would it be gay to rape him? I mean, i-it's not homosexual if the sex is not consensual right?" read another.
He began worrying about his safety, as well as the safety of students in his classes. When Weatherford attempted to reach out to UW president Ana Mari Cauce about his situation, he said all he received in return was this message: "Sent to campus police and student life. So sorry you are experiencing this."
After Weatherford published an op-ed in the campus newspaper, the Daily, and after The Stranger and the Seattle Weekly published stories about the incidents, Cauce reached out to him.
"I just got a boilerplate response, basically to cover her ass," Weatherford said.
After more than eight attempts to get a comment from Cauce, UW spokesperson Arkans said in a statement: "We take our students' welfare very seriously—their physical safety, their psychological well-being, and their emotional health. We work hard at it. Our police do an exceptional job of community policing, our counseling center is a very busy place, as is our SafeCampus office for anyone who feels threatened or uneasy in any way. We are trying to provide these different kinds of support so students can do their best work in a supportive environment designed to maximize their success."
Naraghi, who also teaches in the comparative literature department and was captured on film alongside Weatherford, said she began getting threatening messages, too. The threats against her—"mostly death threats and mocking harassments"—were not as terrifying as Weatherford's, she said.
"He bore the brunt... and he warned us before the shit hit the fan," Naraghi explained. "I got to go and do a cleansing of myself on the internet before they could truly find who I was."
Naraghi said she isn't counting on the university to protect her, given the response Weatherford has received, and that she's no stranger to being threatened with violence.
"I'm Iranian born," said Naraghi. "I'm very used to getting death threats and being harassed, because we moved [to Boston] a year before 9/11. It prepares you for later in life when you try to be an activist, if you grow up in a place that constantly threatens you."
As for remedies, Naraghi said: "It would be nice to explicitly hear from Ana Mari or her administration to say that it's not okay to have people on campus who openly want a white-only nation, who openly call for the genocide of racialized groups. It's not okay for people here to say things like that. There needs to be more accountability." On campus, said Naraghi, lines need to be drawn to differentiate academic freedom and free speech from hate speech.
Weatherford said the UW administration should take a stand to ban speakers like Yiannopoulos who, he said, targets vulnerable people. "When those who have more power institutionally are threatening another group," he said, "that's not free speech." Back in December, in response to demands that Yiannopoulos be banned from the UW campus before his January appearance, Cauce wrote that Yiannopoulos's past statements were "clearly in opposition to the University of Washington's values" and that she herself would never have invited him to campus. The College Republicans invited him, Cauce noted, adding: "The right to free speech and expression is broad and allows for speech that is offensive and that most of us would consider disrespectful, and even sexist or racist. At a public university committed to the free exchange of ideas and free expression, we are obligated to uphold this right."
Nearly two weeks after his online harassment began, Jack Turner said he fears that another flood of hate messages will soon begin.
"Right now on our campus," said Turner, "I'm honestly more concerned about [the students]."
As for Naraghi and Weatherford, they no longer feel safe at UW. Aside from banning individuals like Yiannopoulos, Naraghi and Weatherford said they'd like to see the university assemble a non-police coalition focused on protecting students of color and LGBTQ+ and undocumented students from hate incidents.
"There's a feeling that I don't want to ever walk alone. It's unnerving, it's scary," said Naraghi. "It's created an environment where I have to cover my face, and people who are the most vulnerable—undocumented students, queer people, people of color—have to cover themselves."
"Those who are alt-right or neo-Nazi—however they want to clarify themselves—are the ones who can walk freely with a video camera in your face," she said.
Weatherford said that as recently as January 27, he was followed by someone on campus. After a weeklong absence from school, Weatherford returned to teaching on February 3 when UWPD officials agreed to provide him with a police escort while he's on campus.
"Nothing is read as a credible threat until someone shoots—and that is fucked. That is not a risk I'm willing to take," he said. "They just want to provide these tiny Band-Aids [for] a gaping wound."
This article has been updated since its original publication to reflect that the suspected shooter is a current University of Washington student.