Campus Free Speech

Is Edinburgh Really Investigating a Student for Mocking ISIS on Facebook?

Student Robbie Travers is suspected of putting "minority students at risk and in a state of panic."

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Robbie Travers
Robbie Travers / Facebook

The University of Edinburgh is investigating a law student, Robbie Travers, for allegedly harrassing and discriminating against minority students. As evidence of this behavior, the person making the accusation cited a Facebook post in which Travers celebrated the bombing of an ISIS stronghold in Afghanistan last April.

"I'm glad we could bring these barbarians a step closer to collecting their 72 virgins," Travers wrote.

These and other Facebook rants directed at Muslim extremists were deemed offensive by an Edinburgh student, who submitted screenshots of them to the administration as evidence that Travers "has consistently mocked, disparaged, and incited hatred against religious groups and protected characteristics on numerous occasions."

Travers tells me he stands accused of the following campus infractions:

12.3 Violent, indecent, disorderly, threatening or offensive behaviour or language (whether expressed orally, in writing or electronically) including harassment of any Person whilst engaged in any University work, study or activity.

12.7 Harassing, victimising or discriminating against any Person on grounds of age, disability, race, ethnic or national origin, religion or beliefs, sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, pregnancy, maternity, marriage or civil partnership, colour or socio-economic background.

He also shared with me the text of the complaint and screenshots of the posts that landed him in trouble. They are provactive statements, often aimed at members of the left. (In one such post, Travers chides "prissy, hypocritical, over-sensitive minorities" who accused the Lou Reed song "Walk on the Wild Side" of being transphobic.) But they hardly seem violent, indecent, or harassing. If a university forbids merely offensive speech, then almost any statement could qualify.

The Daily Mail's story about the investigation cites Edinburgh student Esme Allman as Travers' accuser, but the copy of the complaint I received suggests that another student who objected to Travers's behavior toward Allman filed the complaint on her behalf. This student alleged that Travers quoted Allman out of context when he publicized a comment she had made referring to black men as "trash." Allman is a candidate for student government, and a "self-proclaimed feminist and womanist" with a "strong interest in intersectionality," so one can see why she might be angry about being associated with racist comments.

"Travers published a decontextualized quote by Allman from a privileged conversation generated by minority students in a safe space he is neither subscribed to nor a member of without her consent," according to the complaint. This student accused him of putting "minority students at risk and in a state of panic."

The university confirmed the investigation into Travers but disputed the way it has been characterized by the media.

"We can confirm that complaints alleging misconduct have been received against Mr. Travers and these are being investigated," university spokesperson Ronnie Kerr tells me. "It is, however, untrue to suggest that Mr. Travers is 'under investigation' for 'mocking ISIS'."

Kerr is right. It's more accurate to say that Travers' Facebook post mocking ISIS was submitted as evidence that he makes violent and abusive statements about minorities. This is not quite as scandalous as The Mail's headline, but it's still fairly absurd.

Edinburgh is a public university in Scotland. Its students don't enjoy the same free speech protections as American public university students, and so the university might very well be within its rights to investigate Travers. As Kerr said in his statement, "We are committed to providing an environment in which all members of the University community treat each other with dignity and respect. Our Code of Student Conduct sets out clear expectations of behaviour."

But do those clear expectations of behavior actually prevent a student from writing a Facebook post that belittles the views of religious extremists, or takes the social justice left to task for casually labelling a trans-friendly song transphobic? If a student wanted to make the case that Travers had mistreated Allman, the student should have focused on that. By including all those screenshots of Travers' posts, his accuser lends credence to Travers' contention that his opponents are "prissy, hypocritical, and over-sensitive," though it remains to be seen whether pointing this out is some kind of crime at Edinburgh.

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