The latest battle against censorship on campus is being fought at the University of Oklahoma, just a few hours drive down I-35 from us, and it’s an ugly affair. Modern academia and its censorious impulses provide free speech advocates with plenty of opportunities to stand up for reasonable opinions that somehow offend liberal sensibilities, but in this case we are obliged to defend the right to some unabashedly old-fashioned racist boorishness.
It all started when the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers chartered a party bus and decided to celebrate the occasion with a boastful chant about their racially exclusive admission policies, replete with frequent use of a certain notorious fighting word and a jocular reference to lynching, and not in the ironically anti-racist manner of the more up-to-date nightclub comedians. Somebody recorded the event with a cellular phone’s video camera, of course, and it wound up on the internet, of course, and of course much offense was taken. The outrage was such that hundreds of OU students and faculty staged a protest, the national fraternity revoked the offending chapter’s charter, and the university’s president summarily expelled the two students who had been identified as leading the chant.
As free speech advocates we have no quarrel with the peaceful protests, and acknowledge the national fraternity’s right to restrict its membership however it chooses, but the expulsions are another matter. The courts have long held that public universities are bound by the First Amendment and cannot punish students for their speech, no matter how offensive, and for a variety of good reasons. Aside from the plain language of the Constitution, any restriction on free speech will inevitably lead to another, important ideas will be squelched because some well-organized group or another will find them offensive, and given how very touchy academia is these days there’s no telling where it all might end. Already America’s universities are restricting debate on a variety of issues, from the global warming issue to Israel to the “culture of rape” that is said to pervade the modern campus, but the dialogue about race is especially constrained. Anyone challenging liberal orthodoxy on matters of race is routinely branded a racist, even if they are trying to address the frequently disastrous results of liberal orthodoxy for black America, and any effort to ban racism, no matter how well-intentioned, will allow the keepers of the faith to shut down debate completely. Given how many well-organized groups are taking offense at the slightest provocation these days, placating them all would require limiting scholarly discourse to quiet, guilty shrugs and sympathetic nods.
Which is not to say that you shouldn’t be offended by those boorish frat boys and their witless chant, or that you shouldn’t avail yourself of a heaping portion of free speech to express your offense, or that widespread public scorn isn’t an appropriate way of dealing with such unambiguously racist sentiments. In fact, we note that such stigmatizing has rather effectively made the public expression of such racist sentiments rare, and improved race relations to the point that a bunch of drunk frats joking about lynching seems to be a more pressing problem than actual lynchings. Similar results might be achieved if society were to once again attach a stigma to deliberately vulgar language and contraceptive abortion and unwed parenthood and a host of other social ills that the left doesn’t seem to find offensive, but even in these cases we would prefer social persuasion to governmental coercion.
The president of OU might soon find himself in one of those courts that have long held that public universities are bound by the First Amendment, and we won’t mind seeing him lose this one. He was formerly a governor and senator for Oklahoma, back when then state used to elect Democrats to such high offices, and was known for his occasional liberalism and constant devotion to state’s oil and gas industries, so we suspect the same political instincts led him to expel those two students. The controversy caused OU to lose a potential football recruit to the University of Alabama, after all, so the students had not only offended liberal sensibilities but also posed a threat to a crucial business interest. This will only exacerbate the public’s scorn for the two students, and further deter future racist chants on campus, but we’re not so concerned. If that potential football recruit truly believes he won’t encounter any racist frat boys at the University of Alabama he won’t be able to comprehend a playbook, much less an American history textbook, so he probably wouldn’t have done the Sooners any good even if those racist frat boys hadn’t been too stupid to know that there are cell phone video cameras everywhere these days and everything winds up on the internet.
— Bud Norman