GA Tech Student Endured Threats · 21 August 2006

By Andrea Jones--Atlanta Journal-Constitution--08/21/06

 

After Ruth Malhotra and another student filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Georgia Tech in the spring, the outspoken member of College Republicans said she expected some negative reaction.

She was surprised, though, by the death threats and personal attacks.

Some fellow students threatened to choke her between classes. Others said they would throw acid on her at Tech's graduation.

Someone stuffed her campus mailbox with Twinkies snack cakes - implying that she was yellow on the outside (Malhotra is of Indian descent) but white on the inside.

Her lawsuit challenges Tech on its campus policies aimed at protecting students from intolerance.

"It was disappointing and disconcerting," Malhotra, who is readying for graduate school, said Wednesday. "If anything, [my critics] showed who was really being intolerant."

This week, Tech backed off on its tolerance policy for campus housing, rewording sections that Malhotra's lawyer, David French, argued were unconstitutional.

Now, she and Orit Sklar, her fellow plaintiff in the case, are headed back to Tech again to face their critics.

Sklar, from New York, is a rising senior, and Malhotra, from Atlanta, is beginning graduate school in the School of International Affairs.

Malhotra said she and Sklar are excited about coming back, but nervous, too. Their lawsuit is still winding its way through federal court and several issues raised in the case remain unresolved.

"There is a lot of uncertainty regarding the upcoming year, how we'll be treated by administrators and professors," she said.

The suit, one of several similar ones around the country, challenges Tech's policies that suppress intolerant or offensive behavior.

Anti-harrassment policies like Tech's were penned on many campuses in the 1980s with the aim of making college communities more welcoming for women and minorities, said French, the director of the Center for Academic Freedom at the Alliance Defense Fund, which is backing the Tech case.

French said the policies are so common that about 70 percent of the top 400 schools in the country have them on the books and he argues they're all unconstitutional. Judges have agreed in cases in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, among others.

Malhotra hadn't shied away from controversial topics in the past.

Her group's "diversity bake sale" - which charged students different prices depending on their race and gender to protest affirmative action - garnered a visit from the Tech police.

And protests at the feminist play "The Vagina Monologues" also landed her in hot water.

Still, Malhotra insists she's fighting for the rights of all students - not just those who share her beliefs.

"I've engaged in a debate about ideas," Malhotra said. "It's never been about attacking individuals."

While the Tech suit has elicited strong responses from certain student groups, the debate hasn't dominated the campus.

This week, as incoming freshmen wandered around the school and returning students started to drift back, few were talking about free speech.

Michael Kim, a fifth-year senior majoring in management, said students have other things on their minds.

"I agree that you shouldn't have to limit your speech," Kim said. "But it seems a little overboard to sue."