Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity at the University of Arizona decided that hosting an African-American stereotype party on Martin Luther King Day was a cool idea, and soon thereafter posted photos of the bash on various social media, showing drunk students posing like rappers,wearing baggy pants around their knees and drinking liquor out of watermelon cups. The college community was appropriately horrified, and many are calling for the fraternity to be expelled for the incident and the students who attended the party punished. The Detroit Free Press story about the incident is headlined, “Racism or Free Speech”? This is the equivalent of a headline saying “Stupidity or Freedom of the Press?” It’s both. That’s the conundrum.
Of course, there are a great many people who don’t think racist speech should be protected by the Bill of Rights, just as there are many who feel the same about sexist speech, homophobic speech, obscene speech, and speech telling the truth about Obamacare. The University is an institution of learning, allegedly, and thus has an obligation to at least behave in a way that uses this embarrassing incident to show how the First Amendment works. No, it cannot suspend students for attending a party with an intentionally offensive theme. No, it cannot throw out students for the photos they post on Twitter. And no, as some have suggested, it can’t trump up charges that have little to do with the outrage over the party to justify the punishment that will really be for activity a state school cannot punish. It appears that some at the school, one of the most notorious party schools in the country, were shocked-–shocked!—that alcoholic beverages were being served to underaged students on campus! The rule that only non-racists can drink themselves into oblivion illegally will not stand constitutional scrutiny.
Dan Pochoda, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, tried to find some way around his national organization’s official stance against campus speech codes, a.k.a. devices of thought control. “It does appear it was a conscious attempt to degrade an entire race, and anyone taking part in such action would know it increases the difficulty of students of color to participate in the educational community,” he said. The ACLU, especially in recent years, just hates itself in the morning after following its supposedly non-partisan mission sometimes, particularly when it means stopping liberals from engaging in censorship. A closed party devised by and attended by jerks and assholes increases the difficulty of students of color to participate in the educational community? That’s quite a stretch, and the slipperiest of slopes. The more accurate statement is that punishing students for the offensive content of their party theme increases the difficulty of students expressing unpopular opinions, views and political positions on campus, which is what your organization is supposed to be concerned about, Mr. Pochoda.
Robert Shibley, senior vice president for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the courageous free speech group that often has to rush in where the ACLU doesn’t have the integrity to tread, got it right: he explained that choosing a frat party theme is an expressive act, intended to communicate a message and therefore protected by the Constitution. Local civil-rights leaders, in contrast, want the university to revoke the fraternity’s recognition, which means it couldn’t recruit members or hold meetings on campus, expel students who attended the party and take other steps to create a “more accepting environment” at the university, meaning thought and speech restrictions. The groups have threatened to boycott the university’s athletic events and to disrupt a fundraising campaign to rebuild Sun Devil Stadium unless their demands are met. Such civil rights advocates are hypocrites, wanting to ignore the same document’s protections upon which their own cause was built.
So what’s going on here?
Most rights can be abused by jerks and fools, and that’s what happened at the University of Arizona. College is a place where young, insufficiently socialized semi-adults can make mistakes and learn, and it is one of the jobs of a university to foster a culture where anti-social, obnoxious activities that make the campus a less unified, happy, education-friendly place are obviously unwelcome, and the basic values of respect, fairness, responsibility, equity, justice, kindness, citizenship and reciprocity—mustn’t forget the Golden Rule—are sufficiently infused in the community to make such incidents rare and self-policing.
The University of Arizona obviously hasn’t done created such an environment. Intimidating non-conforming students with threats and punishment based on official rules about what one may and may not say, write or believe is un-American, illegal and contrary to the principles of education. Building, teaching and reinforcing campus traditions and values that make students understand and accept that there are certain kinds of socially objectionable conduct that Arizona students cannot engage in and still be regarded as a credit to their school is the kind of thing American colleges used to do well, and do well no longer. I think that whatever the response of the University is, it needs to involve campus-wide measures, and to avoid punishing individual students. I suggest some or all of these options:
- Use the incident to announce that the University and its student body has been embarrassed by the actions of the fraternity, and that the school will develop and implement additional programs and courses designed to emphasize and teach ethical values, and reinforce such values in the school’s culture. Then do it.
- Make the party the topic of focused symposiums and forums, and require students who participated in the party, those who can be identified, to play a central role. If they are thoroughly embarrassed and shamed…good.
- Punish the entire student body, and the university as well. Cancel a football game. Crack down on drinking. Make it clear that this was a campus-wide failure, because healthy university environments don’t experience these episodes. Give students a reason to care about how other students behave. [Update: This is a terrible idea, as I realized after trying to defend it against less rash Ethics Alarms readers.]
- Get rid of fraternities and sororities, which are and have always been breeding pits of bad behavior and poor character, attracting like-minded bad seeds and giving the worst of them power to develop toxic fiefdoms that reinforce the worst values more often than the best ones.
The United States is a nation that provides its citizens with the freedom necessary to be daring, creative, productive, successful…and jerks. It has done its job. Universities exist in part to teach young citizens how to take full advantage of the first four, without indulging in the last. This university, at least, isn’t doing its job, and it is time for it to start.