The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune:
A nine-second video of a singsong call to arms by drunken white fraternity brothers has become national news and put at risk the reputation of the 30,000-student University of Oklahoma. And the contagion may spread. On Thursday, national Sigma Alpha Epsilon officials said they will investigate whether chapters in Texas and Louisiana also sang the racist cheer.
You’ve probably seen the vile footage. School President David Boren responded quickly, expelling two of the students.
Did Boren overreact? Did he violate the students’ First Amendment rights?
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Maria Dixon Hall, an African-American associate professor of communication at Southern Methodist University, says yes. “When (students) enter our classrooms, many of them have never formed an independent thought of their own,” she writes on Patheos, a faith-based blog. “The tapes that play in their heads that inevitably shape their interactions are created by parents, teachers, churches, and yes, our culture.
“Our students sit in a middling place that is as promising as it is dangerous. They are old enough to drive cars, travel abroad and use a credit card, but they are not mature enough to always understand the consequences of driving too fast, failing to heed warnings of staying with the group or predatory interest rates. Since we all know that we all have said things behind closed doors that would have us vilified if they ever saw the light of day, how about we cut these boys a little slack?”
Another view: The university should have regarded this as a teachable moment instead of shaming and discarding the students involved. “Disbanding the fraternity might be justified, but expelling students for hate speech is an extreme response that runs afoul of free-speech norms, if not the First Amendment,” Jamelle Bouie writes in Slate. “Education would be better. The University of Oklahoma is two hours away from Tulsa, which in 1921 was the site of one of the worst anti-black race riots in American history. More than a thousand whites stormed the black district of Tulsa and razed it to the ground, killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless and destitute. Black Tulsa never recovered, but memories of the attack live on among descendants of the victims.
“Don’t expel the boys. Bring them to Tulsa. Have them see the memorials and talk to the children of survivors. Give them a chance to see what their words actually mean, and whether they want to be the kinds of people who sing about lynching for fun.”
Place us in this teachable moment camp. One advantage is that it rivets all of us on this human aspect – yes, words matter – rather than diverting us to a legal tussle that Boren and OU could well lose.
writes in The Washington Post that, “Racist speech is constitutionally protected, just as is expression of other contemptible ideas; and universities may not discipline students based on their speech. That has been the unanimous view of courts that have considered campus speech codes and other campus speech restrictions.” One exception: a true threat of violence, “but that’s not the situation here, where the speech wouldn’t have been taken by any listener as a threat against him or her.”
If this is a teachable moment, the two ex-students would have us believe they’ve already learned from it. One, Parker Rice, released a remorseful statement:
“I am deeply sorry for what I did Saturday night. It was wrong and reckless. I made a horrible mistake by joining into the singing and encouraging others to do the same. … I know everyone wants to know why or how this happened. I admit it likely was fueled by alcohol consumed at the house before the bus trip, but that’s not an excuse. Yes, the song was taught to us, but that too doesn’t work as an explanation. … For me, this is a devastating lesson, and I am seeking guidance on how I can learn from this and make sure it never happens again. My goal for the long-term is to be a man who has the heart and the courage to reject racism wherever I see or experience it in the future.”
The parents of the other student, Levi Pettit, also released a statement expressing deep regret.
Rice and Pettit, two among several young men for whom a nine-second video is, we hope, a life-changing tutorial. Their classroom: a rolling bus.
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