UNT legal counsel resigns after saying n-word at ‘When Hate Comes to Campus’ event

Caitlin Sewell
Caitlin Sewell North Texas Daily

A University of North Texas system staff attorney resigned Friday morning hours after she said the n-word during an on-campus panel discussion called “When Hate Comes to Campus.”

UNT System Assistant General Counsel Caitlin Sewell submitted her resignation Friday morning effective immediately, according to a joint message from the university’s chancellor and president. Speaking about freedom of speech in front of a crowd Thursday night, she said the n-word while apparently trying to make a point about how the First Amendment can protect offensive language.

“We strongly believe in a culture that embraces, and vehemently defends, inclusion,” Chancellor Lesa Roe and President Neal Smatresk said in a statement posted on Twitter Friday afternoon. “While Ms. Sewell was trying to make a point about First Amendment speech, the references used are never condoned in our community, which prides itself on our diversity and caring nature.”

Roe and Smatresk noted in the statement that in the coming days and weeks they would engage in dialogue with student and campus leaders regarding ways to foster a culture of diversity at the university. Counseling resources are available for students, faculty and staff, they said.

Before Sewell’s resignation, officials at the Denton college had received calls for her firing following the Thursday night panel discussion.

North Texas Daily, the UNT student newspaper, reported Sewell was speaking in front of a crowd about the First Amendment’s protection of offensive language when she used the racist slur. Yolian Ogbu, the president of the UNT Student Government Association, tweeted the audio.

“Um, you know, ‘You’re just a dumb (expletive) and I hate you.’ That alone, that’s protected speech,” Sewell can be heard saying in the recording.

A large group of students including Ogbu took to social media to call for Sewell’s immediate termination.

SGA, students react

The UNT Student Government Association shared a letter and list and demands on Twitter on Friday afternoon addressing Sewell’s “beyond shocking” use of the racist slur. She displayed her “cultural incompetence and ignorance,” the student association wrote in the letter, with “no hesitation nor immediate remorse about using the n-word.”

Sewell also censored herself during the same remarks by saying “f-word” and later — after students in attendance voiced their outrage about her use of the racial epithet — said “I have never said that word in a public setting,” according to the letter.

“Which negates the question,” the SGA wrote. “Why does the differentiation on the setting in which the epithet is used (make) an excuse for Sewell?”

The letter includes a list of demands for the university, including implementing racial awareness and inclusion curriculum for all students as well as faculty, staff and administration; hiring more people of color to the faculty and staff by the 2021-2022 school year; and allocating resources to the expansion of the UNT multicultural center and the Division of Equity and Diversity.

Reached over email Friday, UNT didn’t address specific questions but provided Roe and Smatresk’s statement.

Smatresk had first addressed the incident in a statement posted to Twitter on Thursday night, writing “a member of the UNT System legal staff used a racial epithet that was not reflective of the values of our university community.”

The incident, coming during an event focusing on hate on campus, shocked students at the university in Denton and left many asking on social media what more can be done to make students of color feel protected and heard.

In an audio clip tweeted by a UNT journalism student, students can be heard shouting at Sewell, with one student saying, “It was unnecessary and it was cruel and you know that.”

Sewell says in the clip “I apologize” and “I wish I had censored that word — it came out without thought.”

The UNT SGA said on Twitter on Thursday night, in response to Smatresk’s initial statement, “This is unacceptable. Action must be taken.”

At the end of the event, Ogbu told the students in attendance they could fill out cards to air their concerns, North Texas Daily reported. She then said to Sewell, according to the paper, that “I hope you can acknowledge that you’re a racist.”

Dean of Students Moe McGuinness appeared to defend and comfort Sewell following her remarks, senior Katlyn Benedict told the North Texas Daily. McGuinness reportedly later told students she was sorry and the students are the reason she does her job.

The SGA’s full list of demands includes addressing diversity and inclusion in the strategic plan to try to increase retention rates for marginalized students; sustaining diversity curriculum and training; and promoting a more safe and inclusive campus. Additionally, the diversity curriculum needs to be “overseen by a board comprised of students, staff and faculty of color,” according to the list of demands.

A general student body meeting hosted by the UNT SGA is set for Thursday.

Sewell joined the UNT Office of General Counsel in May 2017 as an assistant general counsel, according to the UNT system website. She reportedly worked at the Houston law firm Rogers, Morris & Grover, L.L.P., representing school districts and other educational institutions, and before then was an assistant district attorney in Midland County.

Staff writer Domingo Ramirez Jr. contributed to this report.

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Jack Howland is a breaking news and enterprise reporter. Before coming to the Star-Telegram in May 2019, he worked for two and a half years as a breaking news reporter at the Poughkeepsie Journal in New York. He’s a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.