FIRE: Okla. Racist Chant Controversy Prompts Many U.S. Colleges to Censor Free Speech

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education claims U.S. institutions of higher education are violating the First Amendment rights of students whose speech is deemed offensive.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is claiming that in the wake of the University of Oklahoma expelling fraternity members who uttered a racist fraternity chant in March, other U.S. institutions of higher education are also violating the First Amendment rights of students whose speech is deemed offensive.

Last week, the University of South Carolina (USC) suspended a student who used a racial slur when writing a list of reasons “why USC WiFi blows” on a white board. According to FIRE, shortly after a photo of the student writing the list was posted to social media, USC President Harris Pastides issued a statement saying the university had “taken appropriate actions to suspend [the] student and begin code of conduct investigations.”

Last month, Bucknell University in Pennsylvania expelled three students who allegedly made racist comments during a campus radio broadcast. FIRE claims administrators didn’t provide a recording or transcript of the statements, arguing that “context really doesn’t matter once you see what was said.” Bucknell invoked “administrative action” to expel the students for supposedly violating the student code of conduct, again with no sign of any hearing.

“Colleges have seized on the University of Oklahoma’s unconstitutional actions as a signal that they have an ‘all clear’ to toss free speech and basic fairness out of the window,” said Robert Shibley, FIRE executive director, in a statement. “While these punishments might earn temporary plaudits from the press and public, neutering freedom of speech will look a whole lot less clever when the censors’ own unpopular opinions inevitably come under attack.”

FIRE lists other schools that it claims have also recently taken draconian measures to deal with offensive speech.

“On March 18, the University of Mary Washington in Virginia dissolved its men’s rugby team and mandated sexual assault training for all 46 of its members for a bawdy song sung by a few members at an off-campus party,” claims the organization. “On April 2, Duke University announced that a student alleged to have hung a noose on campus was ‘no longer on campus’ and was to be ‘subject to Duke’s student conduct process,’ and that ‘potential criminal violations’ were being explored. However, the university has shared neither the motive for the display nor the identity of the student. (A similar incident at Duke in 1997 turned out to be a protest against racism by two black undergraduates.) Connecticut College canceled classes on March 30 and required all students to attend diversity sessions in response to racist bathroom graffiti-vandalism now thought to have been the responsibility of a local man who was not a member of the campus community.”

Earlier this week, FIRE wrote to USC, Bucknell, and Duke requesting that they publicize the details of the respective incidents.


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