A Somewhat Different Viewpoint on the Institutional Response to the Racist Exhibitionism at the University of Oklahoma

I was drafting this post before I read John Wilson’s post on the same topic. So I have re-framed this as less of a stand-alone piece and more as a follow-up to his post.

I agree that the students should not have been expelled.

If they were not expelled, they would very likely have decided to leave the University of Oklahoma because they would have been subjected to the constant scrutiny that the video would have justifiably provoked and because, unless they could afford to hire armed guards, they would not have felt any safer anywhere on that campus than an African-American student would have felt in that fraternity.

In effect, by expelling them, the university has provided the students with the basis for a lawsuit. And the idea that they should be given any opportunity to profit from this behavior is, in my mind, at least as reprehensible as the behavior in which they were engaged.

But I think that the university has every right to shut down the fraternity. It may not be fair to many of the members of that fraternity, but if it operates with the approval of the university, then the university has the right to revoke that approval.

Moreover, such a sanction makes the point that if you don’t want to suffer the consequences of the behavior of some yahoos in your midst, then you have to do some self-policing. I did not see or hear anyone on that bus raising any qualms about, never mind any strenuous objections to, that racist song. Moreover, although it is very clear that this cannot possibly have been an isolated incident, I have not heard that anyone connected to the fraternity had voiced any concerns to anyone in the university about racial prejudice being openly expressed or exhibited by a significant number of members of the fraternity ahead of this incident.

The university has the legal and moral obligation to protect the free speech of individuals. It also has the legal and moral obligation to stand for fair treatment of all of the members of its community. A fraternity whose members are uproariously celebrating their exclusion of non-Whites should have no standing within and should be afforded no protections as part of the institution.

I think that there is a big difference between suppressing free speech and even a tacit institutional endorsement of hate speech under the guise of protecting free speech. Going that far strikes me as an unnecessary concession to those who are arguing for “balance”–a now favorite rhetorical tactic of many on the Far Right that, in effect, suggests that all viewpoints have an equal right to be heard and therefore all viewpoints are equally credible.

In response to that self-serving ideological nonsense, we need to take the axiomatic position that you may have the right to say anything, but we have the right to declare that what you are saying is idiotic and/or offensive and to object strenuously to any institutional endorsement of what you are saying. Protecting someone’s right to speak his or her mind should not mean protecting that person from the stigma that should attach to having idiotic or offensive ideas. Although I must protect everyone’s right to speak even if it may mean being subjected to whatever nonsense that person chooses to utter, I do not have any corollary obligation to protect the speaker from the social consequences of his or her exercise of free speech.



5 thoughts on “A Somewhat Different Viewpoint on the Institutional Response to the Racist Exhibitionism at the University of Oklahoma

  1. I think I agree with you almost completely, except for the question of housing. The university has a right to de-recognize a fraternity for racial discrimination, but that requires a process and a hearing, not merely a decision. And my objection to throwing the students out of the house is an issue of tenants’ rights, not merely free speech. No one should be tossed out of their home with 24-hours notice unless an immediate threat is clear. Since I doubt that anyone else will live there this semester, I don’t see any justification for throwing out the students.

    • I agree with you. I find it interesting that we were all insisting that we needed to defend Charlie Hebdo and free expression, when it came to the incident in France where journalists who wrote satire that some considered racist was at issue. Yet, we invoke the category of hate speech, when it came to the racist songs on the bus at U. of Oklahoma.

      There’s an unevenness around when we’re willing to call something hate speech and when we’d prefer not to enter into debates about hate speech (and the fact that in the US we have hate crimes but not hate speech) that is interesting. I don’t know quite what to make of it, but it’s striking. I’ve noticed on my own campus, for example, that when it comes to Islamophobia, our office of diversity and inclusion engages the rhetoric of cultural competency rather than racism, but when it held a brown bag lunch on Ferguson, the discussion was about racism, not cultural competency.

      I’m honestly don’t have the answer in terms of what U of Oklahoma should or shouldn’t do about the incident in terms of de-recognizing the fraternity and or kicking its members out of housing, etc. I’m just thinking out loud about our reactions to different kinds of speech that targets different groups. One could argue that the campus is different and requires a certain kind of speech environment that does not contain hate on the basis of race, but then we run the risk of ending up on Chancellor Wise’s side of the need for a campus environment characterized by civility.

      The reaction of the administrators at U of Oklahoma was disturbing in terms of their insistence that “we are not this,” in the sense that the fraternity becomes an alibi for the institution’s not dealing with the likelihood that there are more diffuse, less dramatic and less-dramatically obvious, problems of racism that likely exist at the university.

  2. I think O.U. had every right to expel those two students who led those vile, racist, despicable chants.The reason: Title VI of the glorious Civil Rights Act of 1964. It these bums were declaring that their frat does not admit African-Americans, that is a prima facie violation of the C.R.A. that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, colour, and national origin. I realise frats are private organisations but they are operating within university housing on a flagship state-university campus. They were declaring a Jim Crow policy of discrimination ON CAMPUS in addition to the racist language that was being shouted out. The latter is protected speech in my opinion, but I am white and easy for me to say: the rest is not and they deserved to be booted out on the seat of their pants.

    If it goes to court, it will be interesting to see what legal argument prevails.

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