Thoughts on Free Speech – Fraternity Suspended for Racist Chant

by Jack

Earlier this month two students from the University of Oklahoma were expelled for leading a racist chant on a bus carrying Sigma Alfa Epsilon fraternity members. There was no hearing, the students were ousted and just as quickly the fraternity was suspended from the campus.

Some have questioned if this was the right action, because part of the learning process in college involves free speech and being able to say abhorrent things as well as discussing volatile issues on unrestricted topics.

It’s often said that the test of free speech is to be able to hear something repugnant, then you know free speech is still alive. However, all freedoms have their limits. Yelling fire in a crowded theater is a classic example where we draw the line on free speech. In this case its an act of violence. Freedom of speech is one thing, an act of violence is another. Having your rights is one thing – intruding on someone else’s is another. Agree?

So, in order to make the most of our rights we must employ a balance between what is a right and what is a crime. Without that distinction we have might makes right. We can’t take advantage of free speech to the extent that we intimidate others into silence. We can’t have free speech that encourages promotes criminal violence.

The deliberate racist chant by the SAE had the net effect of a verbal assault. It was used to intimidate. It instilled fear and it spread bigotry. In short, their were words served no useful purpose, just the opposite. This chant was likely to provoke a violent response and disrupt meaningful dialog.
This foolish act had the effect of encroaching on someone else’s liberty and that’s where the line must be drawn. For that reason alone the university had every right to suspend the students and SAE.

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5 Responses to Thoughts on Free Speech – Fraternity Suspended for Racist Chant

  1. Chris says:

    This was my position at first–that the students have a free speech right to say what they said, but the university also has a right to kick them out because of it.

    So I am surprised to see many, including the ACLU, arguing that the university (as a state university, and thus an agent of government) has no right to kick the students out for their racist speech:

    “As a state-run institution of higher education, the University of Oklahoma must also respect First Amendment principles that are central to the mission of every university. 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; 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.”

    My instincts say that this was clearly over the line, and could be counted as clear-cut bullying, but others whom I respect are saying that lots of precedent supports the kids being able to stay. I’m very torn on this as someone who cares a lot about free speech.

  2. Dan the Man says:

    I been reading comments here for 6 months and this is one of the few things i agree with Chris on. glad we can agree on this one anyway.

  3. Chris says:

    Me too, Dan. 🙂

  4. georgia says:

    It is an interesting line. A fine line. Free Speech?

    In general what is it? SCOTUS says money is free speech. The news won a court case saying lying on air and calling it news is OK. Free Speech.

    Regardless did he University handle it right? Questionable. Interesting stuff that makes one think.

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