A new lawsuit is garnering attention in Washington where a white law student has sued Howard University’s School of Law for racial discrimination. Michael Newman is alleging the school maintains a “hostile education environment.” The complaint names Law Dean Danielle Holley as well as other Howard officials in addition to the university as a whole.
Newman joined the freshman class at Howard in the fall semester of 2020 and remained there for two years. He was expelled in September 2022. He alleged that he suffered “depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts” as a result of “public ostracism, vilification and humiliation” due to his race.
The complaint is particularly detailed in what Newman alleges was Holley’s role in this hostile environment. It alleges that Holley told him that the school owed him no First Amendment rights as a private institution and denied that using terms like “King Mayo” and “mayonnaise” were in any way racial epithets. He claims that Holley told students to avoid interacting with him and advised him to avoid further discourse with students.
Global Head of Diversity Recruiting Reggie McGahee allegedly told Newman he had become the most hated student he had seen during his time at Howard.
Newman was targeted by students after he posted thoughts on an online forum following a symposium featuring an African-American speaker in the run-up to the 2020 election. Newman asked a professor if there could be further dialogue on “whether: (1) Black voters didn’t question turning to government for solutions, and (2) reliably voting for the same party every election disincentivized both parties from responding to the needs of the black communities.” The response was highly negative and Newman was removed from at least one of his group chats for the class.
Another flashpoint occurred after a student searched Newman’s social media posting and found a famous picture of a slave baring his badly scarred back with the caption, “But we don’t know what he did before the picture was taken.” Newman explained that this was a posting against police brutality and an attempt to rebut claims that victims must have done something wrong to justify such a reaction.
Newman faced racial slurs as the “mayo king” and “white panther.” Other students claimed that the “controversies” caused by his exercise of free speech was producing stress and inhibiting their learning.
When Newman attempted to explain his views in a four-part letter, it was labeled a “manifesto” and resulted in Newman’s removal from a second class-wide group chat.
Holley is accused of secretly recording at least one meeting with Newman and publicly denouncing Newman’s views in a public forum as “disturbing in every sense of the word.” She allegedly blocked him from using several functions to try and speak up in his defense, even disabling the chat function and turning off his camera.
Holley and Newman filed complaints against each other. A law school panel sided with the dean, but the complaint alleged that his complaint was never adjudicated.
Holley is correct, if as alleged, she denied the governance of the First Amendment over her actions or those of her school. Howard is a private, not a state, school. However, the university guarantees free speech protections for both students and faculty, even though the university has been repeatedly flagged as hostile to free speech due to its speech code. It is ranked 93rd on free speech rights. Moreover, as Dean, Holley should be striving to assure free speech protections for all students as the very foundation for higher education. That is particularly true at a law school that should be instilling the values of free speech that define not just our country but our profession.