Students walk to class on the campus of the University of North Dakota on Dec. 4, 2003, in Grand Forks. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The University of North Dakota, citing the First Amendment, has decided not to punish several white students who posted racially charged photos of themselves on Snapchat — including one that showed four white women in blackface.

The school said in a statement late Wednesday that officials had investigated two separate incidents and found that the students’ photos did not violate the UND Code of Student Life. University President Mark Kennedy said that although he was personally “appalled” by the images and acknowledged that others took deep offense, free speech considerations prevented the school from taking action.

“The challenge we all face is to find the balance between wanting to eliminate expressions of racism and bigotry and supporting the free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Kennedy said. “If we value freedom of speech, we must acknowledge that some may find the expressions of others unwelcome, painful, or even, offensive.”

University campuses have become battlegrounds for debates over race and inequality in recent years, with social media posts going viral and schools struggling to weigh concerns about racial sensitivity against free speech rights. Last fall, the president of the University of Missouri resigned after days of protests over what critics said was the university’s response to racially charged incidents on campus, including white students shouting racial slurs at black students.

When the photos from the UND students appeared on Snapchat in late September, they drew outrage from current and former students.

One photo shows three white students smiling and flashing a peace sign with a caption that reads “Locked the black b—- out.” The Star-Tribune reported that they locked a black student out of her dorm room, took the picture on her phone and added it to her Snapchat story.

The second photo, posted a day later, shows four white female students in black face paint staring dead-eyed into the camera, with “Black lives matter” in bold text at the bottom corner.

A woman on Facebook who identified herself as Etonde Maloke said she is friends with the student whose phone was taken. At the time, she wrote a widely circulated Facebook post saying “racism is alive and well” and urged UND to take action.

On Wednesday, she slammed the university’s decision not to punish the students.

“Dear University of North Dakota,” she wrote. “Thank you for confirming what I’ve known the entire time I’ve been a student at this institution. You have chosen to justify the acts of some of your students using the excuse of freedom of speech.”

She said that although she didn’t have a problem with people exercising their constitutional rights, she believes the students should face consequences.

“Harassing a student by using her property without her consent or knowledge is not freedom of speech,” she continued. “Thank you for showing us that the issues that plague students of color do not matter.”

Others left comments on the university’s Facebook page expressing their disappointment. “This is an absolute disgrace,” one student said. “This is cruelty and racism at its finest,” said another.

Kennedy said he discussed the incidents with student leaders, who told him they were “not isolated.” He said they talked about implementing a “zero tolerance” policy, but said it was “unachievable under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” which guarantees free speech. As an alternative, a diversity council that includes students will review UND’s diversity practices and curriculum, he said.

UND’s decision not to punish the students is something of a departure from how other universities have handled racially charged incidents in recent months. In September, Belmont University removed a student who called black football players the n-word on Snapchat and said they needed a “bullet in their head.”

Also in September, a student left Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania after calling black students “dark meat” and “inner city garbage” in a Facebook post, Inside Higher Ed reported. The university and campus police “addressed the student, and the post was deleted,” Shippensburg officials said in a statement, but they declined to state whether he voluntarily withdrew. And just last week, two Albright College students were suspended after they mocked Black Lives Matter on Snapchat while one of them wore blackface.

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