Following the disbandment of the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon and the expulsion of two of its fraternity members, the fraternity, also known as SAE, is considering unjustifiable retaliation. Given SAE’s most recent and past history of misconduct, I agree that the actions of the university to eradicate the fraternity are necessary to prevent any harm or potential endangerment to the university’s students.
According to TIME Magazine, SAE has a record of student misconduct, including instances of hazing and several student deaths that should have led to immediate action taken by the university’s administration much earlier. Most recently, however, a video posted online has gone viral, exposing members of the fraternity singing a racist chant. Given the slanderous, heinous nature of the fraternity’s chant, specifically their use of racial slurs towards the university’s black community and the song’s historical reference to lynching, the University of Oklahoma’s decision to disband the fraternity and expel two of its members is legitimate.
Although the fraternity’s lawyer Stephen Jones has cited the fraternity’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech, SAE must be held accountable for their actions in the video since the chant is a clear threat to the safety of the university’s black students. It is concerning that potential legal actions being taken by SAE may claim the violation of First Amendment rights. My biggest concern going forward is that SAE will be viewed as justified if they claim that their First Amendment rights are being violated.
Freedom of speech is becoming an excuse for the many forms of verbal intolerance present in our society and in doing so, we are enabling groups of people, in many circumstances minorities, to be vulnerable to preventable attacks on race. However, my understanding is that the original purpose of the First Amendment was to enable open expression of the people directed at the U.S. government. Whether open expression is exercised through rights such as religious expression or the right to peaceable assembly without fear of being oppressed or silenced, the First Amendment never served as a means to justify racism or any other form of intolerance.
The University of Oklahoma’s immediate disbandment and expulsion of members of the fraternity should be seen as the administration acting upon the harm principle to prevent the potential endangerment of other university students, as opposed to being seen as an oppression of the fraternity’s First Amendment rights. The harm principle first and foremost serves to protect people from each other. Although the harm principle is an insufficient method of governing people alone, given that it declares that the actions of an individual should only be impeded upon if his or her actions may lead to the harm of other individuals, if SAE chooses to pursue legal actions against the University of Oklahoma, the latter can cite the principle and state that their goal is to prevent any harm toward any potentially targeted group of people, rather than to silence certain students.
I am not dismissive of the importance of freedom of speech or ignorant of the fact that the First Amendment of the Constitution protects it. SAE has no grounds to say that their right to freedom of speech has been compromised when we must be cognizant that freedom of speech is not absolute; the Supreme Court itself acknowledges that there are several categories of speech that are not included under the category of freedom of speech, including slander. By acknowledging that slander is not protected by freedom of speech, one can only hope that there will be accountability for acts of verbal intolerance, such as the disgraceful display portrayed by SAE, and that the acknowledgment will hopefully serve to eliminate similar situations from occurring in the future.