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Free Speech and Racist Frat Rats

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

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The Rape of Journalism

Celebrity sex scandals rarely interest us, and we follow political scandals more from a sense of civic obligation than any voyeuristic fascination, but we do love a good journalism scandal. The recent flap over Rolling Stone magazine’s latest discredited story is also an academic scandal, another of our favorite pastimes, so we have been enrapt.

The story that was featured on the cover of the Rolling Stone, once such a counter-cultural honor that Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show had a hit song about it, was incendiary stuff. It told of a brutal gang-rape that occurred as part of a fraternity initiation rite at the University of Virginia, complete with such shocking details as the broken glass that littered the floor where she was attacked. Such a sordid story not only corroborated the academic left’s recent claims of a “culture of rape” on the nation’s campuses, it also confirmed its longstanding prejudices against fraternities, the south, and the brutally sexist nature of American society generally. All in all the story was too good to be true, so it should have come as no surprise that it turned out be false.
Some readers were skeptical from the start, noting the abundance of unnamed sources and a striking failure to even ask for a response from the accused, and of course those who expressed their skepticism were widely denounced for their insensitivity. Even so the points they raised about the numerous deviations from standard journalistic practice were sound enough to instigate an investigation by The Washington Post, a publication ordinarily inclined to believe the academic left’s claims and think the worst of fraternities and the south and the American society generally, and its reporters quickly found several problems with Rolling Stone’s reporting. Among other things, the very specific description of the appearance and occupation of the man who allegedly lured the victim to the party did not remotely match any of the fraternity’s members, and the victim’s friends’ recollections of the aftermath of the incident did not include the visible injuries that would have inevitably occurred if her story were true. A short time after the Post’s story ran Rolling Stone issued a statement acknowledging discrepancies in the subject’s claims and admitting that “We have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”
Rolling Stone’s liberal readership was of course angered that the magazine was blaming the putative victim, even though at that point there was no evidence she was a victim of anything, and more reason to believe that she had victimized the fraternity with a false claim of rape, so the magazine has since altered its statement to say that the mistakes were entirely its own fault. Some of the accuser’s friends remain plausibly convinced that something bad happened to her at the fraternity even as they say that it could have not been precisely what she described, so at this point it is probably for the best that Rolling Stone simply admits its own responsibility for the story and leave it at that, but the fraternity members deserve a presumption of innocence that the phrasing seems to deny them.
Presumption of innocence is an unfashionable concept on the modern left, however. The University of Virginia’s president had no use for it when she suspended all fraternity activities in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the Rolling Stone story, the Department of Justice is using the government’s funding of higher education to coerce other schools to to expel students accused of all manner of sexual misbehavior without due process, and claims that no woman has ever made a false of claim of rape is being chanted on campus around the country. An exception seem to be made for Juanita Broderick’s very believable claim that she was raped by former President Bill Clinton when he was the Attorney General of Arkansas, and the radical left’s defense of Scottsboro Boys and other black men accused of raping white women in the Jim Crow era of the south is still to be regarded as a heroic chapter in the history of liberalism, but otherwise any woman’s claim of rape is to be believed no matter how little evidence supports the charge or how much evidence refutes it.
To believe otherwise opens one to a charge of denying that rape is a continuing problem, but those who insist on believing every charge without reason are not helping the many women who truly are victims of this heinous crime. Every false charge that is ultimately disproved makes it harder for the public to believe the true claims, and those who fall for those false charges similarly discredit themselves. Rolling Stone has done great harm to a fraternity at the University of Virginia, and will probably wind up paying for it in a libel suit, but one can only hope that it will pay for the great harm it has done to rape victims with declining sales and ad revenue and public scorn.

— Bud Norman