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Social media attacks spark USC free speech debate on racism

They were born in different countries, with disparate cultures and faiths. But the two students shared a common dream to attend USC.

Rose Ritch, a San Francisco native, came to USC to study dance but soon widened her academic interests to sociology, law, history and culture. Socially, too, she thrived: winning election as student body vice president in February, nurturing her strong Jewish identity through the Hillel organization and Trojans for Israel.

Abeer Tijani left Nigeria as a toddler and grew up in a diverse Dallas suburb. With an interest in science, she ranked in the top tier of her class, played soccer and flute and served in student government. The achievements helped her land a full-ride merit scholarship to USC to study global health and social entrepreneurship.

The two women, both seniors, have never met. But their worlds collided this summer when Tijani launched an effort to impeach the then-student body president, Truman Fritz, and Ritch amid the national fury over George Floyd’s killing and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Tijani says she questioned Ritch’s commitment to fight racism. Ritch feels she was targeted because she supports Zionism — which she defines as belief in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland, but opponents see as an oppressive political movement that has displaced and discriminated against Palestinians on the land they also claim as home.

Both inside USC and beyond, their conflict grew into a fierce debate between free speech and hate speech, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Jewish, Mideastern and Muslim organizations, along with scholars throughout California and the nation, weighed in, confronting USC with a flurry of dueling demands to acknowledge their stance.

Abeer Tijani, a senior at USC, has never met Rose Ritch. Tijani launched an effort to impeach then-student body president, Truman Fritz, and Ritch amid the national fury over George Floyd’s killing and the Black Lives Matter movement.

(Abeer Tijani)

Both women became targets of relentless, supercharged social media attacks they had unwittingly touched off. Ritch was shocked by the online vitriol. Tijani appealed for calm. But it was too late.

Ritch eventually resigned and in a Facebook post said she was hit with anti-Zionist attacks. Tijani said she felt endangered and scapegoated by the university in her stand for racial justice.

Their wrenching experiences reflect the personal toll caused by the complex and combustible conflicts over race, religion and politics sweeping college campuses throughout the country — and the difficulty that university administrators face in trying to manage them. When USC President Carol L. Folt expressed empathy for Ritch and condemned anti-Semitism this summer, she ignited another furor over the line between religious bias, political criticism and free speech.

But USC leaders are seeking a way forward this fall. Folt has asked the USC Shoah Foundation to expand its anti-hate program to the entire campus and has convened a new faculty group to propose how to better address anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

In addition, university leaders declared that online hate and harassment are “totally unacceptable” and perpetrators would be held accountable.

“These expressions of online hate and harassment have targeted Muslim, Jewish, Palestinian, Black and other students,” wrote Winston B. Crisp, vice president for student affairs, and Varun Soni, dean of religious and spiritual life, in a letter at the onset of the school year. “This has caused profound pain for students who have been blamed and scapegoated for situations beyond their control.”

For Ritch and Tijani, the pain lingers. In a desire to be understood and move forward, they agreed to tell their stories.

How a campus dispute exploded

Ritch, captivated by dance as a child, studied ballet in New York and then joined a dance company in Arizona. But she yearned for a larger world. At USC, she found one. She met aspiring screenwriters and business majors. She observed Friday Shabbat with new Jewish friends.

Inspired by the work of student leaders — lobbying for a fall break, for instance — she accepted Fritz’s invitation to be his running mate. Last February, the pair was elected to the top two student government offices on a platform to increase diversity, sustainability, administrative accountability and health and wellness services.

“We wanted to make [USC] a more inclusive, welcoming, accessible place,” Ritch said.

At the time, Tijani — a lover of cultures who speaks three languages — was studying abroad in Spain to perfect her Spanish and take classes about the European Union.

When the pandemic hit in March, USC brought all students back. Tijani said she was “just livin’ my life” — until May, when Floyd was killed.

“I was sick to my stomach,” she said. She compiled a resource list for antibias education and spoke out about racism in videos, articles and campus Zoom panels.

In late June, Tijani noticed a new Instagram account, @black_at_usc, where anonymous Black Trojans described racist treatment by faculty, police and fellow students — as Black students at other colleges and high schools have begun to do. Four posts particularly caught her eye: They said the student body president, whom they did not name, had made Black students uncomfortable with his jokes, remarks about the “pains of being white” and requests to turn out the Black student vote, which many Black Trojans perceived as a stereotype.

Tijani looked up campus articles about the election and felt that Fritz and Ritch had not chosen a fully diverse leadership team — further reason, she said, to question their commitment to racial justice. (The two student leaders publicly condemned racism and supported summer events to stand with the Black community after Floyd’s death.)

Rose Ritch, left, wrote that her decision to resign as USC student body vice president followed anti-Zionist harassment on social media. Former student body President Truman Fritz also resigned after questions were raised about his commitment to racial justice.

(Vincent Leo / Daily Trojan)

She sent Fritz an email in late June, asking about the posts and how he and Ritch proposed to lead the student body at a time of such painful racial reckoning. Fritz did not respond directly to her but posted an Instagram statement that day, saying he recognized he was a “person of privilege,” asked fellow students to help educate him about race and announced plans for greater outreach to diverse student groups.

Ritch did not respond. She said she was working and off her social media when the exchanges occurred. Unsatisfied by Fritz’s response, Tijani announced on Instagram that she would pursue their impeachment because they “do not authentically represent nor promote the true breadth of diversity that our community has to offer.”

In listing the grounds for removal, Tijani asserted that Ritch had aligned herself with Fritz’s “privileged gatekeeping” and failed to provide a check on him. She also said Ritch had not maintained a strong relationship with the student body, as campus bylaws required, because she had been “outspoken on issues that alienate Palestinian Trojans” without elaborating.

And that’s when things blew up.

Social media posts began calling for Fritz and Ritch to step down — referring to her as a “Zionist.”

By the next day, Tijani was alerted by friends that Ritch was being slammed on social media. She was appalled, she said, and immediately spoke out.

“I want to make it very clear that I do not condone anti-Semitic sentiments of any kind,” she posted on Instagram. “I do not and WILL NOT stand for any … attacks on her identity. I also want to make it very clear that I am fully in support of Palestinian students on campus feeling safe and feeling able to voice their concerns. Being Pro-Israel is not an impeachable offense, just as being pro-Palestine is not an impeachable offense because we must all be allowed to have our rights to freedom of speech protected.

But her words failed to stop what was to come.

“The tiger was let out of the cage,” said Dave Cohn, director of USC Hillel, a nonprofit that supports Jewish students. “It was like a dog whistle to a whole group of people.”

Ritch continued to be bombarded with hateful messages. Dirty Zionist. Anti-Palestinian. Racist. Trash. One called her a “Zionist ass VP” who needed to resign, according to social media posts compiled by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. Within 12 hours, Ritch said, she deleted her Instagram.

“It was just flooding in, and on Twitter, and it was just going crazy,” she said.

She was shaken and scared, worried about returning to campus. The hostility was new to her.

“It’s highlighted how with great speed and ease a great deal of pain and discomfort can be created by how views are expressed in social media environments … that undermine students’ sense of security and support.”

Dave Cohn, director of USC Hillel


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