Washington student is charged with hate crime for alleged online threats

By Sara Jean Green

The Seattle Times


SEATTLE — A suspended Western Washington University student acknowledged to a campus police officer that he wrote “Let’s lynch her” on an online thread about a black student leader but said he promptly deleted it, according to the Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Tysen Campbell, who is white, was charged Thursday with malicious harassment for the Nov. 22 post on the anonymous messaging service Yik Yak in a thread about student president Belina Seare, charging documents say.

Campbell, a 19-year-old sophomore, was arrested Nov. 30 and posted $10,000 bail the following day. He is to be arraigned Friday.

The charge stems from an incident in which numerous “hateful comments” appeared on social-media sites in response to a campus newspaper article discussing the appropriateness of the university’s Viking mascot. Reacting to the online posts, WWU President Bruce Shepard took the unprecedented step of suspending classes on Nov. 24.

According to state law, malicious harassment is an attack motivated by a perception of someone’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation, gender or disability, and results in physical injury, property damage or threats that would place a reasonable person in fear of harm. The felony carries a term of up to five years in prison.

In July, Michael Karlberg, a WWU communications professor, initiated the conversation about the school’s mascot and shared his opinion with Seare and Abby Ramos, the student government vice president for diversity.

“I was trying to invite a conversation about whether or not the mascot supports our commitment to diversity, our commitment to create a more safe and attractive and inclusive environment on campus,” Karlberg was quoted as saying in the Nov. 19 edition of the campus newspaper, The Western Front.

Ramos then raised the issue at an Associated Students board meeting earlier in the month to discuss changing the mascot to be a more inclusive figure, the newspaper reported.

The following day, KIRO 7 reported on the WWU mascot story and Seare and Ramos expressed concern that the TV station “misrepresented the origins and nature of the WWU mascot story,” charging papers say.

The online vitriol then began:

On Nov. 20 on 4 Chan, a digital-message board, one post included a photo of Ku Klux Klan members burning a cross with the caption, “Accurate depiction of how politically correct people see something as minor as a Viking,” the charges say. Another post to the site used a racial slur in referring to Seare, with a third advocating that “these (expletive) losers need to be strung up to trees and killed,” the charges say.

On the evening of Nov. 22, anonymous commenters began a thread about Seare on Yik Yak, claiming the student president had called white college students “baby KKK” on her personal Facebook page, with one commenter writing, “that’s messed up,” according to charging papers.

It is in that Yik Yak thread that Campbell wrote, “Let’s lynch her,” the charges say. They note one “user in particular responded in the thread by suggesting the threatening comment went ‘too far,’ ” they say.

A student reported the social-media “chatter” about the mascot issue and provided screen shots of inappropriate posts to Eric Alexander, dean of student engagement and director of Vikings facilities, on Nov. 23, charging papers say.

That same day, Ramos alerted Seare to the Yik Yak thread and told her “specifically of the lynching comment directed at Seare.” Seare immediately became concerned for her safety given “the historical significance of the term ‘lynching’ and the recent social-media climate surrounding the mascot issue,” the charges say.

Later that evening, Seare and Ramos met with WWU police. Seare, who was in tears, told officers she was “petrified to even leave the police station,” according to charging papers.

The charges allege police tracked down Campbell as the cellphone user who had posted the lynching comment to Yik Yak.

During an interview with campus police, Campbell said he found the alleged “baby KKK” comment to be distasteful and responded with the lynching comment, according to the charges. He told the officer he immediately deleted his post because he “didn’t like the way the comment sounded,” the charges say.

Asked how he thought Seare would feel about the comment, he told the officer, “She would feel threatened … (and) oppressed by white people,” say the charges.

“Campbell went on to say this is not the reaction he was looking for when he posted the comment,” the charges say. “Campbell said it was not his intention to lynch anybody like the Ku Klux Klan.”

Campbell, who does not know Seare personally, also told the officer he “had been banned from further participation” on Yik Yak due to his post, the charges say.

Campbell has been suspended and barred from campus.

A WWU spokesman said the school’s campus police force is continuing to investigate, but has not made any other arrests related to online threats.


(Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.)


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