A University of Wisconsin-La Crosse student had a serious complaint for his campus’ official “Hate Response Team”: he was “very upset” by a Harry Potter mural in a college dorm.
The mural, in the Laux Residence Hall, depicts Neville Longbottom, a character from the Harry Potter films. The nerdy Neville was played by actor Matthew Lewis, who blossomed into a notable hunk post-puberty. The mural shows him as both a geeky boy and an attractive young man — transformed, according to the mural’s caption, by a stay at the Laux Residence Hall itself.
The depiction of this metamorphosis “represents our ideal society and everything I am trying to fight against,” wrote the offended student, whose name is redacted. “It represents white power. Man power. Cis power. Able power. Class power. ECT [sic] ect. I am angry that I know the people who put this mural up, and I am anger [sic] because I know the people who let this mural be put up. Like I said earlier, maybe I am being a little sensitive, but it is how I feel. This represents, to me, our society, and I do not want it up on this wall. Why do we need a BEFORE and AFTER?”
The complaint, unearthed by a Heat Street records request for reports of bias on UW-La Crosse’s campus, was filed in April. We confirmed the mural remains up, despite the student’s complaint. By deadline, neither of the students who painted Neville Longbottom’s poster had responded to Heat Street’s inquiry.
UW-La Crosse established its “Hate Response” Team more than a decade ago to address acts of bias, prejudice, intolerance and hate on campus. Over the same timeframe, more than 100 other colleges and universities also established similar bias response teams. But recently, they’ve also come under fire in some places for restricting free speech and catering to the most easily offended students on campus.
For instance, Colorado School of Mines bias response team decided unilaterally to overrule the student-chosen name for the athletic center after one student complained “The Mine Shaft” actually supported so-called “rape culture”.
Unlike many colleges, UW-La Crosse explicitly states that its bias response team does not “infringe on First Amendment Rights, limit academic freedom… [or] impose disciplinary sanctions or other forms of punishment.” In 2015, the UW System’s Board of Regents also established a policy, patterned off of the Chicago principles, committing to the protection of free speech on campus.
In the case of the Harry Potter complaint, the student asked not to be contacted, so the bias response team simply noted the comments. But any time a student is open to a conversation, a staffer will reach out and listen, says Amanda Goodenough, a member of the UW-La Crosse Hate Response Team and the assistant director of “campus climate”. They always follow up, even if a student’s complaint is outrageous or likely satirical.
“Maybe 1,000 people could look at it and say it’s fake, they’re trying to be funny, but I always try to reach out,” Goodenough says. “Maybe it would be an opportunity to have a conversation. That’s what we need more of.”
Part of UW-La Crosse’s commitment to free speech is helping students learn to talk about what upsets or offends them, she says.
“What our team is really trying to do is promote a culture of empowerment, not victimhood,” she says. “People can report whatever we want and we don’t squelch that. … It’s about people finding their voice, speaking out. They’re college students; they’re learning who they are and what they are in the world, and they may not always get it right, but they’re finding their voice.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.