Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

When someone makes a “joke” capitalizing on negative stereotypes about people who are somehow different than them, they are reinforcing the notion these joked-about-others are separate and inferior from their own category. It’s a rhetorical device that displays weakness or insecurity in the one perpetuating it; the person spreading the slur is unable to use real humor or viable human connection to get attention and build social power, so they must rely on old stereotypes perpetuated within white male supremacist ideologies and insider/outsidership to build social power.

Although the slur is a pathetic bid for power, it evokes real fear into others, either because they themselves are the target or because they suddenly realize they are not in a safe social space. In the historical context of institutionally supported slavery, public lynchings and ongoing failings of the justice system and police to protect many citizens, such jokes should be seen as real threats. They have the effect of an attack.

Especially when posted on social media, in public or on someone else’s whiteboard, these incidences must not be in any way supported by legal or administrative authorities as merely jokes, but seen for what they are, and how they are corrosively affecting the entire community. There should always be consequences for this kind of behavior.

People who claim to be joking in such situations seem to imply they were pretending to hold such views. But pretending to have racist, genderist, ableist or homophobic views has the same effect as actually holding those views by perpetuating them. The absurd idea someone didn’t intend to hurt another with a slur is unfair to the rest of us. Free speech does not equal consequence-free speech. If you circulate hate speech you should be called to account, not let off the hook with the “joke” defense.

I was astonished to read in The Diamondback that the same student who wrote an ableist slur on another student’s whiteboard, which had the definition of homophobia on it, also displayed a white nationalist symbol on his own whiteboard. But University of Maryland Police spokeswoman Sgt. Rosanne Hoaas said the ableist slur incident was an attempt at a “joke.”

[Read more: UMD Police say a derogatory phrase on a student’s whiteboard isn’t a hate bias incident]

Can you imagine anyone really feels safe in that hall? Why should students of color and other targeted individuals bear the stress of these incidents? Do they not deserve to feel safe in their own dormitories? This blatant bid to seize power in a social space should not be tolerated by any university administrator or police officer. To do so absolves this young man and supports him in his circulation of supremacist ideology, threatening the community at large.

Johnna Schmidt is the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House director. She can be reached at