Judge dismisses hate speech case against UVM student
A Burlington, Vermont judge dismissed a criminal case against a University of Vermont (UVM) student who was accused of using racially disparaging comments during a phone conversation.
University officials claimed in October that continuing education major Wesley Richter used “explicitly racist and threatening language" against black students and diversity initiatives on campus, reports Burlington CBS affiliate WCAX.
"This opinion is a victory for free speech on university campuses...The court's ruling reinforces my opinion that this matter should never have been brought."
Judge David Fenster’s decision to dismiss the case on Tuesday for lack of probable cause ends two months of review after UVM police charged Richter with a misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct.
According to the Burlington Free Press, Richter's lawyer, Ben Luna, said the conversation in the library multimedia room between Richter and his mother contained no threats, but prosecutors argued in October that Richter's comments specifically targeted black students, and as such, constituted a crime.
Notably, however, Seven Days reported shortly after the charges were filed that UVM police had issued a statement saying that after conducting “a thorough investigation and threat assessment,” it had “found no information of an imminent threat to public safety.”
Despite Tuesday’s ruling, Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George said her office still believes that it was appropriate to file charges against Richter, saying, “What we allege he did, we still allege he did. It just didn’t rise to the level of a hate crime.”
Richter’s attorney, Ben Luna, however, offered a very different appraisal, saying the judge’s determination makes clear that the charges never should have been filed.
"This opinion is a victory for the First Amendment. This opinion is a victory for free speech on university campuses,” Luna declared in a statement after the dismissal.
“From the very beginning, we maintained the University of Vermont, the University of Vermont Police Department, and the Chittenden County State's Attorney's Office overextended their constitutional power in this case,” he noted. “The court's ruling reinforces my opinion that this matter should never have been brought.”
The exact nature of Richter’s controversial phone call is not known, as the ruling prevents the release of an affidavit containing specific alleged quotations, but Richter has insisted that he did not make any threats during the conversation, which was reportedly overheard by three other individuals.
One of the witnesses reported the incident, but another denied hearing anything inflammatory, and the third refused to speak with investigators.
UVM told the Free Press that Richter is no longer enrolled at the school, but did not comment further, saying it had not yet obtained a copy of the ruling.
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