You Can Hang Me From A Tree…

You know, I’m not entirely certain this whole SAE mess isn’t a free speech issue. I was neither shocked nor particularly surprised by the racist chanting, nor do I believe it was some extant incident. Like many blacks in America, I just assume this is what white folk do when we’re not looking. I don’t chant anti-white stuff when whites aren’t looking, but I and many of my friends are far from Emily Post when not in racially mixed company. I’m shocked—shocked, I tell you—to discover racial slurs are bandied about behind closed doors.

Expelling two students from the University of Oklahoma for the racist chant seems, to me, not only unfair but possibly illegal. They have a right to free speech, no matter how offensive. It’s the price we all pay in order for all of us to have the right to say whatever we want… right? I mean, if these guys were Nazis, would we even be talking about this?

Shutting down the fraternity was certainly a crowd-pleasing thing to do but it was the wrong lesson. It sent a terrible message and, rather than address the real problem, merely forced it back underground. America, it seems, is good at that: burying real so-cial schisms until, say, a black guy is elected president or a lesbian is appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. I remain shocked and unnerved at how deep racism continues to drill into the American ideal, that such ignorance is shockingly alive and well. I tend to blame the Republican party for using racism as a political tool, thereby desensitizing the nation to such matters and bringing racism flagrantly, baldly out into the open where it is, for the most part, accepted.

Frankly, I think being exposed as idiots was punishment enough for SAE. The University of Oklahoma took a black eye over the incident, as it should: I hardly believe nobody in any position of leadership at that campus was aware of the brazenly racist attitudes of SAE.

But the University should have stood up, first and foremost, for the principles this nation was founded upon. I honestly wasn’t all that offended and believe well-meaning white folks perhaps acting on my behalf—and thus treating all blacks like children incapable of expressing their own outrage—grossly overreacted to what this was: sophomoric stupidity by a bunch of knuckleheads. In their headlong rush to defend me, us, whomever, they trampled the U.S. constitution that actually freed us in the first place.


  1. Dave Van Domelen says:

    Actually, it’s part of the Honor Code, which you have to sign onto when you enroll. Most people treat it like the EULAs everyone clicks on without reading, but it’s legally binding. So, breach of contract rather than limitation of free speech.

    • Thad says:

      Yeah, but it’s a breach of a contract that limits free speech.

      Now, granted, there are contracts that limit free speech everywhere (non-disclosure agreements being one obvious example). But we’re talking about a public university. I think the bar for restricting campus speech should be a pretty high one.

      • Dave Van Domelen says:

        The First Amendment only says the government may not abridge free speech. It doesn’t say anything about contracts entered into by individuals. Now, the lawyers hired by the SAE guys will certainly argue some variant of “the honor code shouldn’t count because it wasn’t clearly spelled out before the students or their parents signed, etc”. But even state universities are not The Government, and they can require whatever they think they can get away with. I’ve worked at enough state universities to know the limits on free speech for students and faculty alike.

  2. pallas says:

    “Actually, it’s part of the Honor Code, which you have to sign onto when you enroll.”

    Actually, since the school is a state school, It’s not just a matter of contract law because it’s the government restraining speech by contract, and the government is limited what it can do by the first amendment, and limited in what contracts they are allowed to enforce by the first amendment.

  3. Jason Gaulden says:

    I understand your point and share your reverence for the fundamental right to freedom of expression–free speech, as we tend call it.

    As for shock-value, I’m not as much shocked by the internal racism as I am by outward behavior. Most young people are sophisticated enough to understand that the camera is always on. ‘Tis the way of the modern world. This fact is certainly not enough to deter bad behavior, but it should be enough to give pause before that kind of over-the-top, immensely offensive stuff. Not so with the SAE busload.

    As for legality of punishment, the University is likely well within their right in a technical way. On-campus student organizations are a privilege, not a right. Each student is subject to the institution’s code of conduct, which was violated. And at the Federal level, case law and legal precedent has drawn a distinction between free speech and public endangerment (yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theatre), and also threats of violence. The song lyrics, which assert that a Black person’s attempt to join that fraternity would be met with lynching, makes it inherently a threatening statement, in my opinion. Though it probably doesn’t meet the legal standard of a “direct threat.”

    The culprits probably feel that their first amendment rights have been infringed upon, but if their actions were in clear violation of explicit campus rules (it was an off-campus incident, but a sanctioned fraternity event, so still under the Universities purview), then they don’t have much of a case to make. We can’t know that unless we know all the fine print in the student code of conduct and the policies governing student organizations.

    I do acknowledge that it was an act of stupidity, and I’m guessing each culprit would take it back if they could. I do agree that the public exposure was harsh punishment in itself. And I have real concerns about the collateral damage that seriously impacts the lives of fraternity members who had nothing to do with the incident.

    But all that considered, the University has an ethical obligation to enact a strong response on both sides of the equation: 1) punish the students for their wrongdoing, and more importantly 2) ensure a safe and threat-free campus environment for all the other students.

    Where there might be room for sympathy is for genuine people who don’t consciously understand the nature and impact of white privilege and who want to be better; but not for those fully aware of it who consciously choose to use it as a weapon to hurt–with words or actions–the people they deem inferior.

    So I’m unable to give the inherent threat in their words any sort of discount. As sophomoric and immature as it might be–call it reckless banter, argue that it wasn’t meant literally– it was still a violent proclamation against Black students, which should not be tolerated.

    I have to bear in mind that this “bunch of knuckleheads” in all likelihood will in the future, if not already, hold positions of power and influence in which they may very well apply their expressed disdain for human life, that inarguable disregard for the wellbeing of others, specifically Black people.

    Institutions are made up of and run by people, not the bricks and the mortar. Without holding individuals to account, you can’t ensure institutional justice or root out institutional injustice.

    Did the consequence in this case–expulsion on top of the public exposure–go too far? Were these “knuckleheads” deprived of their right to free speech and expression? What’s the higher calling in an ugly situation like this–a swift attack on the source of expressed hatred, or the unwavering protection of their right to express that hate?

    I guess one of the main things that set America apart from the rest of the world is that sacrosanct value of free speech. I get it. And I agree with it. But these moments make clear the high and hard price we have to pay for it.

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