A former Western Washington University student won’t have a felony on his record or serve more time in jail for an anonymous online post where he suggested lynching the student body president, who is black.
Tysen Dane Campbell, 20, agreed to spend six months on probation during a Whatcom County District Court hearing Thursday afternoon. The agreement is a kind of deferred prosecution. If he keeps a clean record, he won’t be convicted of a crime.
Campbell made the threatening post from his dorm room Nov. 22, 2015, on the anonymous smartphone application Yik Yak, in a thread about Belina Seare, former president of the Associated Students.
“Let’s lynch her,” he wrote. Seconds later the Yak was deleted.
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All classes were canceled for a day because of a wave of hateful online posts, made in response to a campus controversy over the school’s mascot, the Viking. Campbell was the only person charged with a crime, because he made what Seare took as a direct threat.
Seare ran unopposed for president of the student body in 2015. Her campaign photo showed her with her fist raised and clenched, wearing a shirt that says, “Unapologetically Black.”
A few months before she found herself in the center of the controversy, a Western communications professor sent a letter to her and Abby Ramos, the student government vice president for diversity, suggesting a discussion of whether the Viking mascot should be changed because it doesn’t represent the school’s diversifying student body. Advocates in the Associated Students suggested replacing it with an animal mascot, like the bulldog at Gonzaga or the husky at the University of Washington, or even a “nonviolent” fern.
A story in the student newspaper, The Western Front, was picked up in November 2015 by the Seattle television station KIRO 7.
Online comments, most of them against the mascot change, were less than civil.
The Viking has been the school mascot since the 1920s – a “white, hyper-masculine, dominant male,” Seare posted on her AS president Twitter account in November. Seare made another comment on her Facebook page where she called white college students “baby KKK,” according to charging papers.
“ … imma just call them baby kkk for now…cause they can only grow to become one thing,” Seare was quoted in a post on Yik Yak, a social media app where people can only see posts made within a 5- to 10-mile radius. Users get an avatar in each thread, but otherwise they’re anonymous to other users.
Campbell, under the avatar of a sailboat, replied to the Yik Yak post with the lynching comment.
“Dude sailboat too far,” someone said.
When police traced the post to Campbell a week later, he explained he found Seare’s comment about the KKK “distasteful,” according to police reports obtained by The Bellingham Herald. So he “wanted to show her how ridiculous her comment was,” but he had second thoughts after his post and deleted it. One of Seare’s friends saw the post, however, and alerted the student president.
The next night at the campus police station Seare cried as she told officers, “I’m petrified to even leave this station tonight.” She met with then-president of the university, Bruce Shepard, who was the target of death threats a year earlier when he made public comments about how the school should strive to be less white.
Shepard gave Seare a business card and told her to call if anything else came up. She called at 2:14 a.m., Shepard wrote in a blog post, after a picture of a loaded handgun was posted to Yik Yak with a crude caption saying bullets are more interesting than breasts. Police later determined it wasn’t directed at Seare, nor was it linked to Campbell.
Shepard met with staff, and around 6 a.m., and announced all classes were canceled out of concern for student safety.
Campbell’s post was one of many disturbing comments directed at Seare that week. On 4Chan’s /pol/, another site where vitriol festers in anonymity, a user posted a picture of a Ku Klux Klan cross burning.
“Accurate depiction of how politically correct people see something as minor as a Viking,” the caption read.
“Here’s one of the (n-word) who started this whole thing,” another post said, alongside a picture of Seare.
Someone replied that changing the mascot would stop misogyny and violence. “Just kidding, these (expletive) losers need to be strung up to trees and killed,” the post concluded. “Literal (expletive) morons is putting it lightly.”
On Yik Yak, meanwhile, a student joked: “In protest, we should hang a bunch of nooses from trees like Vikings (used) to kill Abbey monks.”
A student replies: “Yeah, and we can all dress up in white cloaks and we can have black people play the monks!”
Days later when select comments were published in a blog post by Shepard, a student emailed the university confessing he’d made the sarcastic follow-up post. He wrote an apology letter to Seare. Prosecutors decided not to charge him.
Campbell, an undergrad student from Granite Falls, was suspended from the university and arrested on a felony charge of malicious harassment, the state’s hate crime law. He served 24 hours in jail before posting $10,000 bond.
Seare did not attend the hearing Thursday in misdemeanor court. Campbell made no comment to the judge.
Outside the courtroom, Campbell told a reporter: “I’m glad this is behind me. And it was a poor representation of who I am.”
As part of his plea deal, he must give four talks at local schools about what he learned from the experience.
A university spokesman, Paul Cocke, said student privacy rules prevented him from saying if Campbell was disciplined beyond the immediate suspension. Cocke confirmed, however, that Campbell is no longer a student at Western.