Oklahoma’s Fraternity Scandal and the First Amendment

A recent video of members of the University Of Oklahoma fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chanting racial slurs has recently exploded on the media throughout the country. The chants were not only undisputedly racist, but especially violent in nature. Specifically they chanted “There will never be a ni**** SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me.”

oklahoma racism scandalThe University of Oklahoma promptly expelled both students who appeared to be leading the chant in the video. Parker Rice, a 19 year old freshman coming right from Jesuit College Preparatory School was the leader of the chant. Another student, Levi Pettit, was also expelled. Both families have apologized profusely. However, Rice is the only involved student who personally apologized.

Were the Students Protected by the First Amendment?

As shocking as this story is, there are several First Amendment Rights that come into question. Were these boys exercising their First Amendment right to free speech? And if so, was the speech protected and therefore not subjected to any legal action, including expulsion from a public university?

A potential lawsuit has been threatened by SAE against the University of Oklahoma for expelling the students. SAE contends that the two students’ immediate expulsion “runs contrary to due process” and that the university has no right to censor speech, despite its hateful content. Other organizations have joined the bandwagon to “protect” the students’ First Amendment rights, including The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is a civil liberties nonprofit. This organization has stated that, as a public university, the University of Oklahoma has no right to punish students solely because of offensive speech.

The Supreme Court has held that “advocacy of the use of force” is unprotected when it is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and is “likely to incite or produce such action.” However, if it does not meet this test, the speech is protected under the First Amendment. For example, the Supreme Court struck down a criminal conviction of the white supremacy group, the Ku Klux Klan, for “advocating … violence … as a means of accomplishing political reform” because their statements at a rally did not express an immediate, or imminent intent to do violence. One could argue the same for the SAE incident which occurred on a bus full of only SAE kids who mostly shared the same views. Additionally, the factors which would be taken into consideration by a court, when deciding whether the speech was intended to incite violence, are that the video was only seconds long and privately recorded. The ruling essentially does not criminalize “mere advocacy.”

Hate speech is actually protected by the Constitution despite being offensive. If the speech is chanted in a private space, as in this incident, amongst people of similar views, it is protected. However, if directed toward African Americans, then if it was extreme enough to incite violence or imminent lawless action, then there would be no constitutional protection. However, the view of courts that have considered campus speech codes and other campus speech restrictions to be subject to first amendment protections. This is also true for fraternity speech, racist or not.

Unfortunately, the critics of the expulsion are legally correct. The students did have a right to free speech in the context in which they expressed it and, although there is an exception for “inciting violence” according to the legal standard, it likely would not apply to this busload of ignorant, drunk, privileged, white college students. Therefore, the public university likely did not have the legal right to expel them. It cannot punish the fraternity members solely for the content of their expression. With that said, both students would have be wise to leave on their own.

Will Racism Ever Stop Plaguing America?

America likes to think as a whole that we are past racism because overt acts such as these are abhorred by the majority. However, this story clearly shows that racism is still present in our society.

I have noticed that in the last few days the Oklahoma story has digressed from the racist video portrayal to the story of the poor frat boys whose lives are ruined. The media will always frame things the way they choose, which is often influenced by the pressure of institutions. But the community’s voice should always remain on point. In this case, it should be emphasized that the student’s actions were clearly wrong and highly offensive, regardless of whether or not First Amendment protections apply.

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