‘The most I can do with my power is advocate very strongly’: Student body president claims bureaucracy, federal law constrains her response to racist student

Student Body President Celine Persaud speaks out about what she and her staff are doing to make FAU a more inclusive place, including safe spaces and statements discouraging hate speech.


Photo via @sgatfau on Instagram

Kendall Little, Managing Editor

In October, FAU Student Government released a statement about Ryan Richards, an FAU student who said the n-word repeatedly in a Snapchat video that was posted on Twitter on Oct. 25, 2020.

The statement, signed by Student Body President Celine Persaud and Vice President Joseph Burgese, assured students that they were “[taking] all the action in [their] power to ensure this is investigated fully and appropriate action will be taken.”

Persaud’s aim in releasing the statement was to inform students that her administration does not condone racism or hate speech. “If anything happens like that, there will be action taken,” she said. It’s been 92 days since that letter was posted on social media for students to see.

A federal law constrains Persaud’s response. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prevents her from following up on Richards’ situation. 


Persaud actually suggested passing hate speech bills in 2019 after Created Equal, a pro-life organization based in Ohio, brought a JumboTron TV to the Free Speech Lawn that showed graphic images of abortions during a protest.

“We can make it harder for these people to come on campus by making bills,” Persaud at a 2019 panel for that year’s student body presidential candidates to speak out on different issues happening around campus. 

Implementing hate speech bills wasn’t on Persaud’s agenda when it came to handling the Richards situation. The responsibility for handling Richards’ situation falls to a member of the university’s administration.

“Obviously, I want to do everything in my power to make sure that anyone who does this type of thing has consequences, but I’m not allowed to. That’s all the dean of students,” Persaud said.


Students who violate university code of conduct policies may be brought up on student conduct charges. It is unclear whether or not Richards has undergone one. Even if Persaud wanted to follow up on the Richards case, federal law prevents her from getting an update.

Persaud said that she does not have access to any student conduct hearings. “If I were to go and contact the Dean of Students and be like, ‘Hey, what’s the status on Ryan Richards?’, not only would I not have access to the information, but I’m not even allowed to know,” Persaud said.

Dean of Students Audrey Pusey confirmed that all student conduct records are protected by FERPA. 

“The student body president does not have access to the student conduct records of individual students and does not play a role in the student conduct decision-making process,” she said.

As a public university, staff have to adhere to free speech laws guaranteed by the Constitution.

“The protection of free speech afforded by the First Amendment must govern the university’s response,” Pusey said. “The Constitution makes it clear that freedom from interference by government, including public institutions like FAU, applies not only to ideas that we agree with, but also to thoughts and ideas that are contrary to our university values.”

Pusey, then, cannot remove a student for hate speech. Instead, the university can only use the Richards incident as a learning experience.

“Nothing prevents the university from addressing those incidents from an educational perspective, and nothing presents the community from voicing their own counter-perspective, which hopefully reflects the values of inclusion, support, and an appreciation of diversity,” she said.

Pusey supported the university’s decision to leave Richards without consequence by quoting Erwin Chemerinsky, a dean and law professor at the University of California-Berkeley: “there are times when the power of more speech is greater than that of enforced silence.”


“I have actually been working with [Andrea] Oliver all semester long, even before this happened, to include a portion on a syllabus that kind of defines hate speech and allows for consequences to happen if there’s a speech inside or outside of the classroom,” Persaud said.

This would be a written portion on all syllabi according to Persaud.

However, this project could not accomplish exactly what Persaud had hoped because it does not allow for consequences to happen to students who partake in hate speech.

“The statement does not address hate speech, but rather addresses racism and discrimination and provides resources for students to report incidents and seek support. It also includes a statement indicating that all reports are reviewed and appropriate action will be taken,” Associate Vice President of Student Outreach and Diversity Andrea Guzman Oliver said.

Persaud claims her plan to include the written portion on all syllabi has taken quite a while to be put into action because of a long, tedious process. “The Faculty Senate has to take a vote on it and we’ve been in the process of drafting up the statement and getting feedback from different parts of the student body,” Persaud said.

In the months since this incident, Persaud has attended a multitude of sessions with Black student leaders and has been in contact with many students that are people of color to understand what they want to see implemented on campus. 

After working closely with Black student leaders, she said that a major project on her agenda is to have a “safe space for Black students to be able to go on campus.” Persaud said that the safe space is something that “a lot of students have told [her] that they want.” 

Persaud would like to find room in the Student Government budget, which totals to more than six million dollars, to create the safe space.

Student Government is promoting diversity on campus through several other initiatives, Oliver said.

“Some examples include: revitalizing “Diversity Way” with new banners showcasing our students, faculty, and staff, providing additional funding to support the expansion of the Center for Inclusion, Diversity Education, and Advocacy (IDEAs) and the addition of the Office of Black Student Success and Initiatives,” she said. The university is also providing funding for a multicultural space on the Jupiter campus.

While these projects are aiming to help solve race related issues on campus, they don’t directly deal with Ryan Richards, which is what Persaud believes students want. 

“It’s kind of hard to fathom that people would act like [Richards],” Persaud said. “The most I can do with my power is advocate very strongly, which I have been doing,” she said.

Persaud claims she is doing all she can to help minimize incidents like this one in the future, even given the limits on what she can do.

“I don’t think that this is acceptable, but I can’t personally expel Richards. I don’t have that power,” Persaud said.


Kendall Little is the Managing Editor for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet her @klittlewrites.