Following charges of disorderly conduct, continuing education student Wesley Richter appeared in court Oct. 27 after allegations he made racial threats in B/H.
Another student reported overhearing threatening language on Oct. 1, according to an email alert for students from UVM.
The student, cited in court as senior Colby Thompson, reported overhearing Richter make a threat of violence targeting African-American students on campus. The exact content of Richter’s alleged statement is being kept private pending Judge David Fenster’s determination of probable cause for the state.
Ryan Richards, the state’s attorney on the case, said the statements made by Richter qualify as threatening behavior.
“There are clear first amendment issues, as I’m sure [those in court] saw, because the threatening behavior is solidly speech [Richter is not accused of taking physical action], so it walks a fine line between whether or not it’s protected or not,” he said.
The state’s position is that the particular words said in this situation rise to the level of unprotected speech, Richards said.
The alleged incident occurred in the multimedia room of the library, with four students present, including Richter. According to Judge Fenster, one student declined to speak with police, another could not recall what was said and the third was Thompson.
Students who attended the hearing were disappointed in Fenster’s decision to not release the content of Richter’s alleged statement in a court affidavit.
“I don’t understand why that speech couldn’t have been released,” junior Z McCarron said.
Richards’ arguments were also criticized by students.
“[The] state’s attorney was bumbling and flailing,” senior Rachel Goldstein said.
Judge Fenster declined to rule on determining probable cause, citing a need to further examine issues brought up both by Richards and by Richter’s attorney Benjamin Luna.
In an interview, Luna said that he is challenging the state’s probable cause ability to bring charges against Richter, because Richter was on the phone and is being punished for his constitutionally protected right to free speech.
“I think that there are politics at play within this prosecution,” Luna said.
Luna said that UVM’s recent issues with junior J.T. Reichelm and the recent protest march on diversity demands have led to the University using his client as a scapegoat.
The state argues that Richter was not engaging in free speech, but rather that statements made in a school are akin to shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre.
Richter made the statements despite knowing that others could overhear him, Richards said.
Richards also confirmed that the statements were explicitly about African-American students on campus.
“[I] want the law to come down on him,” Goldstein said. “[I] want to send a strong message that this won’t fly on our campus.”
Vice Provost for Student Affairs Annie Stevens and Chief Risk Officer Al Turgeon sent an email to students on Oct. 2 regarding the incident.
“Such detestable remarks and threats directed to any group or individual are antithetical to our values and commitment to work toward racial equality and greater inclusion,” the email stated.
The University’s handling of the incident was also criticized by students.
“The administration needs to step up, because we want the students to get in trouble, because protecting the safety of students of color on campus should be the number one priority,” Goldstein said.