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University of North Texas staff attorney resigns less than 24 hours after sparking controversy by using N-word as example during free-speech event

Assistant general counsel Caitlin Sewell offered her resignation Friday morning.

Updated 12:38 p.m. Nov. 8, 2019 to include Sewell’s resignation, and statement from UNT system chancellor Lesa Roe.

During a university-sponsored event on Thursday at the University of North Texas, the event’s speaker — UNT assistant general counsel Caitlin Sewell — used a racial epithet while discussing the limits of free speech on campus.

Following a storm of controversy, Sewell submitted her resignation Friday morning, UNT system chancellor Lesa Roe and president Neal Smatresk said in a statement.

At the event, titled “When Hate Comes to Campus,” Sewell said the following during her presentation:

“You know, you can say a lot of offensive things in here because it’s impossible to talk about the First Amendment without saying horrible things. Um, you know, ‘You’re just a dumb n----- and I hate you.’ That alone, that’s protected speech.”

Sewell’s use of the epithet sparked a firestorm at the event, leading several in the audience — including the student government association’s president — to demand action from the university.

According to Lizzy Spangler and Rebekah Schulte from the university’s student newspaper, the North Texas Daily, student government association president Yolian Ogbu called Sewell out for her comments during a subsequent panel discussion.

“We’re living in a white supremacist system, we have to understand that,” Ogbu said. “And because of that, we constantly have people like us … that feel a certain type of way when someone says that word. If it wasn’t that big of a deal, I wouldn’t be saying anything right now. But it is, and the fact that we’re at this point … is disturbing.”

Later Thursday evening, Ogbu went on Twitter and called for Sewell’s resignation, writing, “If UNT wants to say they’re anti-racist, show us.”

Sewell, who had worked at UNT since 2017, apologized during the event, saying she “did not mean to, by any means, offend anyone.”

“I wish I had censored that word,” she told the audience. “It came out without thought.”

She declined to offer additional comment Thursday night following the event, according to Spangler and Schulte.

After the event, student government senator Daniel Ojo told the NT Daily that he was troubled by Sewell’s lack of sensitivity in using the epithet.

During her speech, Sewell self-censored another expletive, Ojo pointed out.

“So, you didn’t censor the N-word, but you definitely censored f---,” Ojo said. “Like, what’s more damaging to people? There is no word that I can say to describe a white person that is completely damaging to their character … that has like big historical context to it that can damage someone, but there are a plethora of words that can describe and damage minor, marginalized students.”

UNT president Neal Smatresk offered a statement Thursday night, saying that Sewell’s comment “was not reflective of the values of our university community.”

“While the individual was trying to make a point about First Amendment speech, this language is never condoned in our community which prides itself on our diversity and caring nature,” he wrote.

Smatresk and Roe reissued that statement on Friday, along with the news of Sewell’s resignation.

“In the coming days and weeks, it is our intention to engage in a dialogue with student and campus leaders regarding ways we can continue to foster a culture of diversity that is UNT,” the statement read. “In the meantime, UNT counseling resources are available for all students, faculty, and staff.”

Flier for the University of North Texas' "When Hate Comes to Campus" event on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019.
Flier for the University of North Texas' "When Hate Comes to Campus" event on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019.(University of North Texas)

Corbett Smith. Education writer (and part-time HS sportswriter) for The Dallas Morning News

corbettsmith@dallasnews.com /DMNEducation @corbettsmithDMN

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