HOUGHTON, MICH. - A former Michigan Technological University student who was accused last year of threatening, on social media, to shoot black students filed a federal lawsuit this week against the school, alleging officials wrongly blamed him and attempted to cover up their mistake.
Matthew Schultz, a resident of Norway in northern Michigan, was a junior at the university when he posted on Yik Yak what school officials thought was a threat on Nov. 12, 2015.
Yik Yak, an app used to make anonymous posts that are sorted by location, gained attention last year when it was used to post threats to black students after protests at the University of Missouri. The threats spurred a security scare that led to many students fleeing college grounds before police arrested Hunter Park, 19, who was a student.
According to the lawsuit, which names 12 school officials and a former Michigan Tech student, Schultz said he was a regular Yik Yak user when he noticed posts that included comments about the University of Missouri's threats and posts about Michigan Tech having its own racial issues.
Schultz, who is being represented by attorneys Steven Pence and Nicholas Roumel, said he wanted to attempt to point out "the ridiculous nature of the threats," so he posted: "Gonna shoot all black people .... A smile tomorrow," with a smiling emoji. According to his lawsuit, Schultz said he meant he was going to shoot a smile at black people and was only expressing in a humorous way that he was not racist.
The post was on Yik Yak for about five minutes before it was removed by another user, which is an allowed function on the site.
Michigan Tech, a university with about 7,000 students on the western side of the Upper Peninsula, sent a campus-wide notification of what it considered a threat, increased police presence and made counseling services available.
Schultz said things quickly spiraled out of control when another former student who is named in the lawsuit, Ryan Grainger, sent a screenshot of his post via Twitter to Michigan Tech Vice President Les Cook, urging him to look at it. Grainger could not be reached for comment by the Free Press.
When school officials didn't respond, Schultz alleged, Grainger sent another tweet to Brian Caldwell, deputy chief of police for the university's Department of Public Safety, altering his original post to say, "gonna shoot all black people." Schultz said Grainger removed the phrase "a smile tomorrow" and the emoji.
Schultz said the university "swiftly and publicly" alerted the campus community to the altered posting, instead of his original post, which he believes was innocent in nature.
Jennifer Donovan, director of news and media relations, issued a brief statement Thursday to the Free Press in response to the lawsuit, stating the university plans to defend itself.
"The matter is in litigation, and the university is vigorously defending all claims against it and its employees and will continue to do all needed to assure a safe campus," Donovan said.
Schultz said his face was plastered across local and national media outlets and university officials stated in interviews that he was "going to kill all black people." He said the university also falsely stated officials discovered the threat "monitoring the Yik Yak app feed as usual." He also alleges a police report from the university's Department of Public Safety omits the fact that there was an altered post sent to the university.
"In lieu of pursuing or exposing Grainger for his false report to MTU officials and campus police, the MTU defendants instead knowingly perpetuated the myth that Matthew had written the altered post, in order to serve MTU's own political purposes," the lawsuit states.
He was arrested on a felony charge of domestic terrorism, according to the lawsuit, but he was later only charged and arraigned on a 90-day misdemeanor of disturbing the peace contrary to law. On Dec. 7, 2015, all charges against Schultz were dismissed by the Houghton County Prosecutor's Office, according to the lawsuit, because there had been "communication problems" between the university and prosecutors but by then, he had already been expelled from the university.
"In spite of MTU officials knowing there were two posts, one of which was altered with the intent to make the original post look sinister, MTU failed to investigate Defendant Grainger and his Twitter account to determine if he intended to terrorize MTU students and/or simply intended to embarrass administration, but only focused on the altered words falsely attributed to plaintiff," the lawsuit states.
Schultz said he believes the university violated his First and 14th Amendment rights and is seeking monetary damages exceeding $75,000 from the school and Grainger.
"Presently, Matthew remains out of school with no hope of resuming his studies anywhere, having been publicly labeled a virulent racist by a university with a history of botched investigations and an inability to do other than protect the institution and the lives of its administrative careerists, at any cost to students or the truth," the lawsuit said.
(2016 © Detroit Free Press)