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Zero tolerance for racism – or the First Amendment

Racist statements by fraternity brothers evoke appropriately horrified denouncements


After a video surfaced online of students at the University of Oklahoma enthusiastically singing a racist chant, the university’s president made it clear to the individuals – and the public at large – just what “zero tolerance” means.

The intensity of the university’s condemnation was matched only by the severity of the racism displayed in the video, in which members of the university’s chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity were heard referencing lynching and singing a rhyming refrain centered around the message that “there will never be a n****r at SAE.”

Both the language and the sentiment behind the performance are disgraceful, demonstrating extreme racism and discrimination that shouldn’t even be contemplated, much less joyfully expressed.

University President David Boren was appropriately dismayed. He expressed his disappointment and called the individuals involved “disgraceful,” emphasizing students who truly reflect the university’s values are not racists or bigots.

Boren’s denouncement of the students’ reprehensible behavior has been reinforced by the severity of the punishment faced by the students and their fraternity.

The university immediately severed all ties and affiliations with the university’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, removing the letters identifying the fraternity’s (former) residence and ordering all of the house’s residents to remove their possessions and vacate the grounds.

Boren expressed no sympathy for the displaced fraternity brothers, saying the university would not offer “student services to bigots.”

Clearly the university’s president, who reported he was so upset by the video he couldn’t sleep at night, isn’t holding back.

And while an unrestrained and emotional denouncement of such blatant racism is certainly worthy of support, it’s worth questioning whether Boren’s motivation lies in his convictions or in his desire to put on a performance that will effectively show the public his university strives to be an environment free of bigotry.

Considering the students in the video performed what was clearly a well-known refrain, it seems likely this racist sentiment is not limited solely to the individuals in the video, but the fraternity at large.

Banning the organization from campus, in that case, certainly makes sense. It also raises concerns for the national chapter, which now must take action to investigate how widespread this sort of behavior may be.

But Boren, operating on a more limited scale, took further action in response to the video. He chose to expel the two students seen leading the chant, identified as 19-year-old freshman Parker Rice and 20-year-old sophomore Levi Pettit.

It’s admittedly satisfying to learn this behavior has been so harshly condemned and the ringleaders are facing repercussions that will haunt them for years to come.

But after putting such vindictive pleasures aside, it’s worth questioning the motives behind this move and the legality of the punishment.

Boren seems horrified by the behavior of these students, and has responded as such. His choice to expel the students makes the university’s zero tolerance policy clear, and could help prevent future actions of a similar nature – or at the very least, dissuade students from videotaping the behavior.

But these two students – despite their obvious guilt and flawed sense of morality and superiority – aren’t necessarily any guiltier than their fraternity brothers. They’re simply unfortunate enough to be the face of the issue.

If this issue is as widespread as it seems, then the discipline should be equally distributed. It also needs to respect the Constitution.

Boren is on shaky legal ground in expelling the students, as the First Amendment does protect all speech – even hate speech. The university’s president may just be trying to mend the institution’s reputation, or he may be legitimately motivated by his beliefs.

But either way, the expulsion of Rice and Pettit may go a step too far – even though it sends the right message, one that helps to combat the deeply wrong ideas expressed in that now infamous video.


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