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.