It was just a few days after Charlottesville erupted in violence. Some 150 miles away, a student at Virginia Tech saw online posts that left her reeling. One began, “I am a white supremacist.”
She alerted other students. And as word spread, so did efforts to force the university to fire a teaching assistant for statements he allegedly posted on social media — including some he says have been misunderstood, and one he denies making. Now, Virginia Tech and Blacksburg police are investigating threats made against the undergraduate who publicized the teaching assistant’s name.
At a time of heightened tensions over white supremacy and free-speech issues on campuses across the country, Virginia Tech has emerged as another flash point.
The debate raises questions about privacy, free speech and the ways that universities function as communities. At issue is whether opinions expressed outside the classroom are protected by the First Amendment, or whether there are views so offensive that schools should not tolerate them.
The debate has roiled the public university’s campus and prompted some alumni to create a petition, now signed by more than 4,300 people, calling on the school’s leadership to take action. “Silence is tacit approval,” they wrote, especially at “a moment in history when racist ideology is an ever-growing threat.”
Mark Daniel Neuhoff, the graduate student at the center of the debate, said in an interview he thought the posts were appearing on a private forum, and he insisted that his remarks had been taken out of context, oversimplified and distorted.
His post about white supremacy, he said, was a response to an article considering the appropriate terminology for certain beliefs.
“I’m not violent,” he said. “I’m not hateful.”
But that’s how he has been characterized, he said. “I’m a symbol of Charlottesville — and lynchings . . . and whatever unimaginably horrible thing that people can think of, that’s me right now. Because they want a monster to destroy.”
Neuhoff has been a teaching assistant in introductory writing courses, but said he is choosing not to teach next semester, “because I’m tired of the hateful mob that wants to crucify people.”
The controversy flared shortly before the start of the school year. Tori Coan, a senior from Fairfax studying economics, alerted friends about Neuhoff through a private Facebook campus group page. She also shared images from social media attributed to Neuhoff.
Coan met with administrators to share her concerns, she said, but became frustrated when it seemed nothing was being done.
“I want Mark Neuhoff to be removed from teaching,” Coan said. “I’m having a hard time understanding where the hesitancy to remove that employee would come from.”
Mark Owczarski, a spokesman for Virginia Tech, said he could not discuss specific student conduct or employment issues, and did not respond to questions about Neuhoff, other than to say he had no information about him. But the school spokesman said if people raise concerns at Virginia Tech, “we care deeply about those concerns. We have policies we must follow, we have procedures we must follow. . . . We take that concern, and we thoroughly review it,” and decide what action to take.
In late September, Coan and other student protesters disrupted the “State of the University” speech delivered by Virginia Tech’s president, chanting “No Nazis, No KKK, No fascist USA.”
At about the same time, a group called New River Against Fascism, whose members had been monitoring social media intently after Charlottesville, posted a warning about Neuhoff and images of statements they said he had written on Facebook.
“Who is Mark talking to? Well, his 1,830 Facebook friends,” the anti-fascist group wrote online. “This list is composed of members of the alt-right and white nationalists from around the globe. He is posting his hatred, disguised as speech to members of White Lives Matter, Vanguard America, Traditional Workers Party, neo-Nazis, and European far-right extremists.”
“Our goal is not to target individuals, get them fired,” said Tim Joad, a community member who’s part of New River Against Fascism, a regional group of activists. Rather, he said, they want to confront hateful ideas — not ignore them. They want to take away the platforms for spreading those ideas, such as a teaching position that could convey intellectual authority and credibility even outside the classroom.
To his opponents, Neuhoff’s words are clear.
In his view, he was having private, nuanced conversations about history and other subjects in which no topic was off the table — then some of those posts were cherry-picked to caricature him.
One of the posts from Neuhoff cites an article that declares, “If Hitler had won World War II we’d have a better, more just world today.” The post includes a portrait of Hitler.
Neuhoff said people just seeing that could assume he believes, “I wish Hitler killed all the Jews. I wish Hitler took over the world.” Instead, he said he believes if Hitler had prevailed, the Soviet Union would have been destroyed and the spread of communism could have been stopped.
“I think that every conservative person is concerned with the notion that by 2050, whites are going to be a minority in this country,” he said. “I think the country’s going to be worse off when whites are not the majority.”
Neuhoff graduated from Northern Illinois University in 2013 with a major in English and minor in classical studies, Joe King, a spokesman for that school, confirmed.
Neuhoff was a cryptologic linguist for the U.S. Army from 2013 to 2015, according to Lt. Col. Jennifer R. Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Army.
The circumstances of Neuhoff’s departure from the Army were unclear. “The type of discharge is protected by the Privacy Act, so I am not authorized to release it,” she wrote in an email.
Neuhoff did not answer a question about his service.
At Virginia Tech, soon after her protest at the university president’s speech, Coan found a post on Reddit about herself, full of insults, she said.
On Oct. 2, someone called her, screaming threats and profanities. She answered a few more calls that evening, and heard a person on the other end mumbling or breathing, then cursing at her. Then, her cellphone began ringing persistently.
She also was the target of threats posted to a Facebook account that included a photo of her and her cellphone number. Her name was written with the last name enclosed in triple parentheses, a notation sometimes used to denote Jewish people that the Anti-Defamation League has characterized as an anti-Semitic hate symbol.
And there was a message: “F--- her up. Destroy her.”
Coan got more than 70 calls that night, she said.
“Terrified does not begin to cover the fear and the panic that had begun to set in,” she said.
She went to campus police and city police and then she was out of class all week, she said.
Lt. John Goad of the Blacksburg Police Department confirmed that his agency is working with the Virginia Tech Police Department to investigate the alleged threats, but could not provide details.
Regarding the Facebook threats, Neuhoff said: “I did not write that.”
Coan said she knows some people disagreed with her decision to publicize the social media posts and to protest, saying it was a free-speech issue and that Neuhoff has the right to express his opinions.
Now, Coan is facing her own hearing Monday for a possible violation of the student conduct code, according to Lauren Malhotra, a senior at Virginia Tech, who said Neuhoff complained to the university about Coan’s public statements about him.
Malhotra, a friend of Coan’s, believes it was a retaliatory complaint. “But the university is taking it seriously. . . . A lot of people care about this issue,” Malhotra said, saying she had heard concerns about Neuhoff from alumni, faculty members and students.
Owczarski said he could not confirm the existence of a student conduct hearing because of privacy laws. But he said in general, “When you have two points of view and they don’t coincide and you can’t come to an agreement, that’s where we have our policies and procedures which are very robust, very thorough.”
Timothy Sands, the president of Virginia Tech, issued a statement to the campus Oct. 6 after another protest of Neuhoff by some students, emphasizing the school’s commitment to free speech and respect for others.
“Most speech that promotes ideologies of hate is protected free speech under the First Amendment. As a community, we are all threatened by these ideologies of hate,” he wrote. “Let me state without equivocation that Virginia Tech’s administration and the Board of Visitors find the ideology encompassed by white supremacy, neo-fascism, neo-Nazism and others to be abhorrent and to have no place in modern society.”
A statement on the English Department’s website includes an affirmation of the university’s principles and these ideas:
“The right to speak freely is ensconced in the Constitution of the United States, and we honor its central role in our nation’s culture,” the statement said.
“As scholars of language and literature . . . we believe in the power of language to reach across difference and promote understanding; we also witness its often-corrosive force in civil society. . . . Negotiating free speech in the spirit of inclusivity is the challenge of our time.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.