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To understand why the University of Oklahoma was wrong to expel the students responsible for singing a racist chant (as well as disband the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter on their campus), it is first important to understand the legal arguments in favor and against the college’s decision, and only then can you fully realize why both positions entirely miss the deeper point. While the civil liberties of the Oklahoma students are important, they pale in significance to our society’s deeper need to find ways of educating our youth about the importance of racial tolerance, not imposing brutal punishments when they slip up.
For what it’s worth, the law isn’t cut-and-dried when it comes to how the university administration should handle this situation. Institutions of higher learning need to “grapple with how to meet dueling obligations under the First Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial harassment,” explains Olabisi Okubadejo, a lawyer who specializes in higher education issues and was interviewed by the Washington Post. “To constitute harassment, when viewed from the perspective of a reasonable person, the speech must be sufficiently serious to deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in the school’s educational program.”
On the one hand, a strong case could be made that the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chant that “there will never be a n***er in SAE” is a clear-cut case of that type of harassment. “Just as a professor, I have a right to say whatever I want in my personal and private life, but if I got on the Huffington Post and said, ‘I think all white people are stupid and they need to go to hell,’ I would have to pay for that remark,” argued San Francisco State professor Dave Cook on HuffPost Live. Legal analyst Adam Banner echoed this line of reasoning, pointing out that “OU’s best bet is going to be to try and rely on their code of conduct and use one of the prohibited acts that’s listed in that code of conduct instead of relying on a constitutional issue.”
At the same time, many constitutional experts agree that the expulsions and disbandment of the fraternity are blatant violations of the students’ First Amendment rights. “Any sanction imposed on students for their speech must therefore be consistent with the First Amendment and not merely a punishment for vile and reprehensible speech,” declared the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in an official statement. “Courts have consistently and rightly ruled as such. Absent information that is not at our disposal, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which a court would side with the university on this matter.”
As Howard M. Wasserman of Florida International University College of Law succinctly summed it up to JURIST: “The First Amendment, Justice Holmes wrote in U.S. v. Schwimmer, protects ‘not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.'”
According to Reddit, University of Oklahoma isn’t the only school that has an SAE chapter that sings this chant during their events or meetings. It just so happens that the brothers of Oklahoma’s chapter sang this chant on a recent fraternity outing, and as social media runs today’s world, it went viral; enormous pressure then prompted the fraternity chapter to be shut down, and the two young men leading the chant in the video to be expelled.
At its core, this was a reactionary response, based primarily on the administrators’ desire to protect their public image. These young men were singing a song with hateful lyrics, but does that mean they were being deliberately racist, as opposed to just juvenile? This was a fraternity song that has potentially been taught to brothers for decades; it is hard to argue, beyond a reasonable doubt, that these words posed a hostile environment to the university. What they did present, on the other hand, was an outstanding opportunity for a teachable moment.
A better response (and certainly a less reactionary one) would have been to talk about why this song was sung so that the students could understand the ramifications that a chant with those hateful lyrics could have on their peers—and ultimately themselves. There is ample scholarship on the history of racial slurs like the “N-word,” to say nothing of widel -acclaimed works of popular history which explain how America has long used a system of racial privilege to disadvantage non-whites and, in particular, the black community.
By expelling these students and disbanding the fraternity, all that the University of Oklahoma did was send a message of fear, drive racism back underground, and allow racists themselves to believe (rightly or wrongly) that they are being persecuted. If the focus had instead been on requiring them to take courses understanding the historical context of their actions, it could have transformed an ugly outburst of hate speech into an opportunity to educate—which is, ostensibly, the ultimate function of a college in the first place.
A recent incident at UCLA comes to mind, one in which a young woman’s application to be on a student board was called into question because she was Jewish. Instead of reprimanding the students involved, the school supported the Undergraduate Students Association Council to issue “A Resolution Condemning Anti-Semitism.” As one of the resolution’s authors explained: “This resolution is not aimed at denying the right of UCLA students to criticize the Israeli government. Almost an entire page of the five-page resolution is devoted to that right, by aiming to create a structure for respectful disagreement on the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the most important part of the resolution aims to reconstruct an environment in which the identities of Jews are no longer politicized because of this international conflict.”
Instead of trying to censor anti-Semites who use criticism of Israel as a cover for bigotry, this statement made a good-faith effort to help college students differentiate between the two. In short, it fought prejudice with education instead of authoritarian (and potentially unconstitutional) force.
At the University of Oklahoma, by contrast, the president decided to take the weight of the school’s reputation into his own hands, showing that he and the school he helms are not racist and won’t tolerate this kind of behavior. Actions and responses like that do very little to pull a community together or strengthen it, much less actively rectify the misconceptions that fuel prejudice. The school’s actions may have been a great way to save face on the Internet, but they show far less concern with actually healing the racial wounds that continue to divide our country.
Oklahoma may have shut down one racist frat, but is the school doing anything to stop others from taking its place?
Photo via okchomeseller/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University and a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, and MSNBC.