The president of the University of Mary Washington strongly denied allegations that the school failed to act on threats against members of a campus feminist group on the instant-messaging app Yik Yak.
Richard V. Hurley also wrote, in a letter made public this week, that the school had no evidence that those threats played a role in the April killing of student Grace Rebecca Mann, who was a leader of Feminists United on Campus.
Her housemate, Steven Vander Briel, has been charged with first-degree murder in the 20-year-old’s slaying, but police have not released a motive in the case. She was from McLean.
The Fredericksburg school released the letter after members of Feminists United announced at a news conference in May they were filing a federal complaint about the school, saying they had repeatedly asked school officials to do something about the threats and felt unsafe on campus. Some of the messages threatened rape or killing members of the group after they took positions on hot-button campus issues.
But Hurley wrote in his letter that the school had met the threats “head on” and that Feminists United and its backers had “recklessly publicized” the complaint.
“The primary premise of the complaint is that UMW ‘ignored’ students’ concerns regarding comments made on the social media app Yik Yak,” Hurley wrote. “That allegation is demonstrably false.”
Hurley contended that he met with members of Feminists United to discuss their concerns and consulted with legal counsel on what actions the school could take to limit Yik Yak’s impact on campus. He also wrote that school officials had an open dialogue about sexual assault with students and provided security for one member of Feminists United following a threat.
Hurley wrote that the school has to weigh students’ First Amendment rights, so an outright ban on Yik Yak on campus was not an option.
Debra S. Katz, an attorney for Feminists United, rejected Hurley’s contention that the school did all it could to handle the threats. She said the university did little. “I find it quite disconcerting that President Hurley seems not to understand the university’s obligation . . . to provide a campus that is free of threats via anonymous posts,” Katz said.
Yik Yak allows anyone within a particular geographic area to post anonymous messages that can be seen by other users of the app. Feminists United said the threats were posted after members of the group came out against a proposal to allow Greek life on campus and wrote an op-ed about a chant by members of the rugby team about having sex with a dead prostitute.
Vander Briel was a member of the rugby team during his first stint at the school in the mid-2000s. Hurley wrote that Vander Briel was not currently a member of the team and that it did not appear he was friends with members of the current team.
Hurley wrote that the university has not received any evidence of direct threats against Mann on Yik Yak or reports that Vander Briel demonstrated threatening or inappropriate behavior since he began taking classes again during the spring semester.
During a May news conference, an attorney for Feminists United called on police to explore whether there was a connection between Mann’s killing and the threats posted on Yik Yak. Soon after, police filed search warrants to look at Vander Briel’s social media accounts.