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Police seeking Facebook release of Virginia Tech instructor's activity

Police seeking Facebook release of Virginia Tech instructor's activity

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BLACKSBURG — Police are investigating a Facebook account belonging to a Virginia Tech graduate student whose posts on white supremacy have riled fellow students.

The writings of the instructor, who says his posts were intended for the eyes of a private audience only and should have never prompted a debate, spurred a public protest last month and has increased scrutiny on the limits of free speech on the school’s campus.

Mark Neuhoff, a graduate student and part-time instructor teaching English composition at Tech, has posted his political ideas on Facebook and discussed what he calls “basic conservative principles” with what he calls a sympathetic group of like-minded individuals.

As a result, Neuhoff’s name began circulating online in late September, when a group calling itself New River Valley Against Fascism published a blog post Sept. 26 with screen captures of social media posts by a profile under the name “Mark Daniel.”

The posts discussed white dominance and included phrases such as “I am a white supremacist,” and “1 million might be a tad too many dead jews but that’s splitting hairs.”

The Roanoke Times approached Neuhoff after he left a classroom on Tech’s campus on Oct. 11. He said his posts were intended for a specific audience that “gets” him and should not be thrown into the public square for ethical debate. He said he wrote the posts shared by the anti-fascism group.

“When people write on Facebook, you’re not writing something thinking it’s going to be made public or that millions of people are going to see it,” he said. “All of the posts are private for a specific audience who knows and understands who I am.”

He said that his posts were meant to rebuff a negative connotation associated with the words white supremacist and not to threaten others. At the same time, he stated his commitment and agreement with Tech’s Principles of Community, “which are an accurate reflection of my personal beliefs.”

“What I was doing with my posts was trying to redefine the term that is destructive and shuts someone down — white supremacist,” Neuhoff said. “When you hear that term, you think of a violent, hateful evil person who wants to kill others. I think that’s incredibly harmful. When people call each other fascist, Nazi and white supremacist, it’s the same thing as calling them witch. That’s how it feels.”

Tech’s public response did not acknowledge Neuhoff directly but instead condemned views that have been described by the university’s president as being in “stark contrast” to the school’s self-ascribed principals of community.

The situation came to a head Sept. 29, when a handful of student activists interrupted President Tim Sands’ annual State of the University speech, criticizing the school for employing and protecting a man they characterized as dangerous.

On Oct. 2, NRV Against Fascism published a Facebook post with pictures of a communication sent to WordPress, the host site of the blog, by Neuhoff saying that he is the author of the posts. He demanded that the writings, as his property, be taken off the blog.

“I swear, under penalty of perjury, that the above information is accurate and that I am the copyright owner or are authorized to act on behalf of the owner of an exclusive right that is allegedly infringed,” Neuhoff wrote to WordPress.

The note from Neuhoff included his digital signature and he confirmed to The Roanoke Times he had written to the blog.

Meanwhile, Tori Coan, a student at Tech who was part of the Sept. 29 protest, filed a formal complaint with the university dated Sept. 13 alleging that Neuhoff had “targeted [her] personally” and was “threatening violence toward those who speak out against [him].” She said she was told the university was investigating the matter but had not been given an update as of earlier this week.

Fearing her complaint would not be addressed, Coan and a small group of students interrupted Sands’ Sept. 29 speech demonstrating with a banner and chanting “No Nazis, No KKK, No Fascist USA.”

“We have spent a month talking to administration, asking them where are our answers,” Coan told The Roanoke Times that afternoon. “We haven’t had any action and we felt like the student body and the campus community had a right to know.”

  • On Oct. 2, the Mark Daniel Facebook account, which had been renamed Daniel Mark, shared a link to the online version of a Roanoke Times story on the student demonstration. In the post, it listed Coan’s personal cell phone number and instructed friends and followers of the account to “fuher up, destroy her.”

In a written statement provided to police, Coan said she received more than 70 phone calls from a blocked number and threatening voice messages shortly after the post was published.

In an email to The Roanoke Times on Oct. 3, Neuhoff denied making the Oct. 2 Facebook post. He later told The Roanoke Times that a family member had posted it to his account without his permission. When contacted by The Roanoke Times, the family member declined to comment.

The search warrant filed by Blacksburg Police on Oct. 18 requested from Facebook all posts, comments, photographs and messenger conversations from Neuhoff’s page between Aug. 20 and Oct. 13. Police indicated the request comes as an investigation into the potential charge of threatening death or bodily injury, a felony charge with a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Citing federal student privacy law, Virginia Tech denied a Roanoke Times Freedom of Information request seeking emails sent to or from Neuhoff’s university address the day of the student demonstration. The school also declined to provide any information regarding Neuhoff including his dates of enrollment or employment, salary or stipend amount and status at the university.

When asked about the Oct. 2 Facebook post now at the center of the police probe, Tracy Vosburgh, a spokeswoman for the university responded: “Because any information would be considered part of a student record we cannot comment.”

A second antifascist demonstration was held on campus on Oct. 6, this time outside a classroom in which Neuhoff was teaching. In photo and video accounts of the protest, both plainclothes and uniformed Virginia Tech Police officers are seen following behind as Neuhoff entered a classroom while students stood silently in the hallway, holding pieces of paper with printouts of the instructor’s social media posts and other anti-fascist messages on them.

“This is NOT okay,” one read. “A white supremacist has more protection on this campus than its minority students,” another said.

Tech Police Chief Kevin Foust declined to comment on the police activity outside the classroom that afternoon.

A few hours later, Sands released a statement to the campus community.

“Most speech that promotes ideologies of hate is protected free speech under the First Amendment. As a community, we are all threatened by these ideologies of hate, as it is in stark contrast to our Principles of Community. Let me state without equivocation that Virginia Tech’s administration and the Board of Visitors find the ideology encompassed by white supremacy, neo-fascism, neo-Nazism, and others to be abhorrent and to have no place in modern society,” Sands said. “We also remain committed to our policies and procedures that prohibit disrupting teaching, learning, research, and the operation of the university. Individuals who cross this line will be held accountable by our policies and the law, some of which mandate confidentiality.”

Neuhoff, as of Friday, remains an instructor and student at Virginia Tech. He began attending in the fall of 2016 according to his Linkedin Account and said he plans to graduate in May of next year. He said he has deactivated his social media accounts and has no plans to re-establish them.

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