Campus Free Speech

Indiana Wesleyan Student Kicked Out of Honors College for Questioning Cultural Appropriation

Bias incident reports, safety concerns, and harassment charges, all because of a slightly trollish Facebook post.


Two years ago, Micah Sample, a libertarian student at Indiana Wesleyan University, penned a rant against the campus's guidance to students to avoid offensive Halloween costumes and published it on Facebook.

The post was a tad on the trollish side: Sample referred to IWU's Halloween costume awareness checklist as "cancerous," and accused the social justice left of fetishizing victimhood.

"I'm going to culturally appropriate as much as I please, and I couldn't possibly care less about who gets offended," he wrote.

The statement was provocative, but it wasn't crude or threatening. Some of Sample's Facebook friends objected to the tone of it, and said so. That should have been the end of the entire ordeal.

It wasn't. Instead, IWU launched an investigation. Then administration felt compelled to issue a statement denouncing the post. Then the university suspended Sample from his student leadership positions. IWU deemed Sample guilty of harassment and disruptive behavior: He arrived at a meeting with administrators only to learn that they had already reached this verdict without providing the student any meaningful opportunity to defend himself. Ultimately, the Honors College ejected him.

"Before going through the Student Conduct process, I believed that Indiana Wesleyan University was a place for free thought, dialogue, speech, and expression," wrote Sample in an email to Reason. "Afterward, it became apparent that this was nothing more than a facade."

This incident unfolded in the fall of 2017. It has only recently come to light, as Sample opted to share the entire investigative report—a 91-page testament to the horrors of university bureaucracy—with Mark Bauerlein, an academic and journalist. Bauerlein wrote about Sample's ordeal at Minding the Campus. I obtained a copy of the report from Bauerlein. Having read the entire thing, I cannot disagree with Bauerlein's impression that Sample was subjected to a kind of Star Chamber, and that freedom of speech and thought are seriously imperiled at the private, Christian university.

"Is it possible for an entire institution to go crazy?" wonders Bauerlein.

Here was Sample's initial Facebook post, which came in response to campus posters warning students about Halloween costumes that borrow from other cultures and thus commit the sin of appropriation:

Just to mess with the ideologically possessed people who made this cancerous sign, I'm very, very tempted to dress as an incarcerated Muslim Native American chieftain, wearing both a hijab and a ritual headdress. If anyone can get me some face paint and a headdress, or an authentic hijab, please message me here on Facebook. I'm going to culturally appropriate as much as I please, and I couldn't possibly care less about who gets offended. If my choice of costume is restricted by "social justice"—that is, "victim" worship and fetishizing—I'm going to rail against every boundary these people set up. Let the virtue-signaling games begin, and may the odds be ever in your favor this Halloween—if you're a member of a non-privileged, non-white, non-male minority, that is.

Also, please don't dress up as a Wild Western cowboy outlaw—that's appropriation of my culture, and I find that really offensive. Just, like, be culturally sensitive and stuff, so we don't have to send the thought police after you.

Rude? Perhaps. Edgy? Sure. An example of targeted harassment, worthy of formal sanction? Surely not.

But the post generated many complaints. Several students even filed bias response reports. (These are also contained in Sample's file.) IWU's bias reporting system asks the victim to give the name of the perpetrator, provide documentation of the offense, and explain the impact. One victim said Sample's post "made me feel upset and shaken." Still another wrote "he cannot state that cultural appropriation is irrelevant/idiotic and mock other religions and cultures," as if disagreeing with with someone else's beliefs constituted criminal behavior.

Based on the feedback, Sample apologized for how he worded his post.

"I think that views which may be in conflict with those held by administrators, staff, students, or organizations ought to be not only allowed, but perhaps even encouraged, because I value diversity of thought, and that was my original point," he wrote. "I did not express that well initially, and for that, I'm sorry."

The file contains copies of emails exchanged between various IWU administrators. They take note of Sample's apology but conclude that "I don't think this changes our course of action."

Next, the dean of the Honors College, David Riggs, emailed Sample to inform him that the college was "beyond disappointed" with his "deeply problematic and offensive" post.

"As a result, the faculty decided it is necessary for us to issue a public statement making clear that we find this sort of uncharitable and inflammatory use of social media to be at odds with the ethos of our Christian liberal learning community," wrote Riggs.

But merely issuing a statement wasn't enough. The university also decided to inform Sample that he was potentially in violation of university policy relating to harassment and disruptive behavior. He was asked to appear for a meeting six days later, where "based on the information gathered, a decision will be made."

It soon became clear that the decision to sanction Sample had already been made, and could only have been avoided if the student had groveled before the administration. The file contains the notes of an administrator named Laura Bronsink, who met with Sample and explained that "based on only reading the post he seemed to have no concern for how others might respond. … It did not seem to invite a conversation, but rather antagonize individuals to respond with their opinion, even though his mind would not change."

On this basis, Sample was found responsible on the two charges. IWU has three levels of probation: verbal warning, disciplinary warning, and citizenship probation. Sample's thoughtcrimes were so egregious that the university had placed him in the most serious category—citizenship probation. He would be suspended from his extracurricular activities—including his position in the student government—for 60 days. He was also required to write a two-page reflection paper. Finally, after additional back and forth, he was dismissed from the honors program entirely.

What he wrote in his reflection paper probably didn't help his case:

Throughout the humiliating process of being berated and condemned by Student Conduct for the sole purpose of appeasing offended parties, I have come to realize that the impact I have had on this campus due to the Facebook post in question has been immensely positive, despite mid-ranking faculty (who I will neither name or indicate here) doing their absolute best to convince me otherwise. Not only am I wholly innocent of the charges at hand—because I neither harassed anyone, nor instigated disruptive behavior, but instead merely spoke the truth in a humorous fashion—but I have also created a conversation among students surrounding the restrictions of free speech on this campus, which is a highly necessary conversation.

Reading through Sample's responses to the patronizing and melodramatic missives of the administration, I noticed that his own conviction he did nothing wrong—indeed, that he was the victim—increased over time. In fact, he eventually filed his own bias complaint, asserting that the university had discriminated against him on the basis that he had been perceived as a white male. (Sample asserts he has Native American ancestry, and thus his declaration that he would appropriate this culture was not offensive.)

"I am convinced that the Leftists in power desire nothing less than total domination over their students' ideas and worldviews," Sample told me.

If the university wanted to persuade a young man that railing against social justice warriors wouldn't win him many converts, its strategy backfired. Administrators appear to have made Sample more convinced that progressives don't want to hear ideas they find offensive, more convinced that lefty-sympathetic authority structures will violate principles of free speech and due process to punish wrongthink, and more convinced that he was right to mock them.