SAE chant is wrong, but First Amendment-protected


The Appalachian Online

Kevin Griffin

The University of Oklahoma and the national Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity made the right decision in shutting down the university’s chapter following revelation of a grotesque, racist chant by fraternity members.

However, the university overstepped its authority by expelling two fraternity members who were identified in the video.

The reason they took this action is obvious. The chant, filled with dark references to the history of lynching, makes the university look bad and affects its ability to attract students. Jean Delance, a football recruit, backed out on his commitment to the university following the publicizing of the chant, according to Huffington Post.

Yet, the university is a public institution that must abide by the First Amendment. As the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out in a statement on the incident, the University of Oklahoma is a public institution that must respect the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment.

As a country, we have a long history of protection for unpopular and often heinous speech. The Supreme Court ruled in a 2011 case, Snyder v. Phelps, that Westboro Baptist Church followers are constitutionally allowed, with some limitations on location, to protest near funerals.

Just because speech is deplorable does not mean it is unprotected.

But why should we protect speech? Certainly speech such as the SAE chant has no value. That is true. No one but the most hardcore racists would find any value in that speech.

Still, I think we run a big risk when the government or other institutions bound by government constraints punish people for making speech on the basis of content.

While the SAE chant itself has no value, any attempt by the government to single out speech on the basis of offensive content would negatively affect speech that might be controversial but valuable.

I have no interest in defending the fraternity brothers who were able to so smugly and gleefully recite such a despicable chant. The incident testifies to a lingering societal problem of racism, one that must be addressed. The way to address the problem is by pointing and criticizing racism while also working to eliminate discrimination and inequality in social institutions.

Punishing derogatory speech is not the answer. SAE members deserved to have their fraternity shut down and also deserve the shame that comes with their speech. As a matter of principle and law, however, it is wrong to expel them.

Griffin, a junior journalism major from Madison, is an opinion writer.

STORY: Kevin Griffin, Opinion Writer