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Fraternity racist chants–what about contrition?

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The story a few weeks back about the bigotry displayed by two members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma gave rise to different viewpoints about how the situation should have been handled. Here are two that stand out.  Both miss the mark.

One reader of the Columbus Dispatch thought the fraternity members’ words should be protected by the First Amendment. As the argument goes, if we allow the Ku Klux Klan to protest on public venues, why not let college students freely express themselves?

I’m not sure the First Amendment applies to state schools. (Any First Amendment lawyers reading this?) Still, whether universities should permit unlimited discourse—they are places where divergent ideas should be discussed—is a good question, especially when cities have been ordered by the courts to allow the KKK to conduct rallies on city land.

But isn’t there a difference between tolerance for polar ideas and allowing hateful speech?  If parents send their children to universities to be educated, doesn’t that education include guidance on the difference between liberal thought and hateful speech that is historically tied to dehumanizing a race?

Columnist Cal Thomas suggests the students be forgiven, not punished, an idea he got from Isaac Hill, the president of the Black Student Association at the University Oklahoma.  Speaking on the Fox News, Hill said, “It is not smart to fight hate with hate. It is only logical to fight hate with love.”

Thomas believes that “instead of focusing on punishment and expulsion, shutting down the fraternity house and evicting all its residents, the goal should have been redemption. Redemption is a harder road to travel, but the destination should be to change the students’ thinking, not bludgeon them into silence where any racist thoughts might fester and grow worse.”

Redemption would come about by the fraternity members spending time with students of other races, eating with them, taking in a ballgame, meeting their parents, etc.

Hill’s idea of forgiveness and Thomas’ preference for redemption both have unquestionable merit. Great faith leaders have always focused on the importance of forgiveness. Those who have suffered terribly at the hands of others will tell you that with forgiveness comes freedom.  Redemption allows offenders to rejoin society.

But isn’t something missing when it comes to the two students who were doing the chanting?

How do you jump to redemption without the necessary predicate of contrition?  Don’t the fraternity students first have to acknowledge that what they did was wrong?  Even if they are able to muster the fortitude and engage in enough self-reflection to render a heartfelt apology, shouldn’t they be held accountable in a tangible way?  How do these students atone for what they did? Is sharing meals or going to ball games with black students enough?  If expulsion is too much, is suspension a better fit?

Episodes like the SAE chant make for great intellectual debate, but the debate has been conducted largely in a vacuum. What if you were to watch the actual video? Seriously, click on the link I’ve provided. If you have difficulty making out the words, here’s what the students were chanting: “There’ll never be a nigger at SAE. You can hang ‘em from a tree, but they’ll never sign with me. There’ll never be a nigger at SAE.”

Still feel the same?

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Jack D’Aurora writes for considerthisbyjd.com

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Discussion

  1. Brent Rosenthal  March 24, 2015

    Very touchy subject. Whenever I think of free speech issues, I think of how Prof Goldberger of OSU, a Jew, represented the Nazis when they wanted to march in Skokie, IL, a heavily Jewish populated town. He recognized that the right to free speech is paramount, and trumps the content. “Hate speech” is not always apparent. For example, many sincere Christians, and others of faith, sincerely believe homosexuality is wrong based on a defensible reading of the Bible. They don’t have to “hate” to say they believe that. On the other hand, those who strongly favor LGBT rights would say such beliefs are inherently “hate,” in the same sense that some southerners justified their racism by saying their interpretation of the Bible mandated against integration and equal rights.
    In today’s pejorative-filled public forum anything which “discriminates” becomes hate. The critical word that is lost in the conversation is “invidious.” Discrimination by itself is a neutral concept, one we engage in every day, whenever we make a decision. It’s the “invidious” part that adds the ugly face. But in any event, we either have free speech or we don’t. Once we as a society approve certain messages and disapprove others, and forbid the latter from speaking, publicly or otherwise, the First Amendment is for all intents and purposes gone.
    Then throw in the concept of “hate crime.” Is a murder done with a hateful heart worse than one done without?

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    • jdaurora@behallaw.com  March 24, 2015

      Even though I agree with you when we talk about something like SKokie, Ill. and the KKK (I remember that event), somehow I feel differently when it comes to the SAE fraternity students. I’m having a hard time figuring out why I look at these two events differently. Maybe the difference is that the SAE members are students, who are to be guided. If these young men are in an institution of higher education, doesn’t that education extend to teaching them that racist chants are wrong? If we don’t get the message across now, then when?

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  2. Bruce Lackey  March 24, 2015

    I assume the perps were all over 18 years of age. Even though some of this is learned behavior, they should be held accountable for their actions and punished in some fashion; expulsion seems severe. I believe that if they are penitent, they should be forgiven. I am not sure how you forgive someone who does not ask for it?

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    • jdaurora@behallaw.com  March 24, 2015

      I think the trick is to provide these young men with some sense for how badly they behaved, which might lead to them to remorse and then to contrition. As to forgiving someone who doesn’t ask for it, it can be done. Think of Tom Moe, an Air Force pilot I wrote about who was downed in the Vietnam War and held prisoner for years. He forgave his captors even though I’m sure they never asked for forgiveness. Forgiveness provides relief for the victim.

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  3. John C. Calhoun  April 2, 2015

    I believe it is wrong not to confront hate speech in every place it resides. Universities are not exempt from fostering ney sometimes teaching human intolerance. I totally disagree with the above comments and only point to recent (last 100 years) world history of master race rhetoric carried out in the most horrific way. It wasn’t only in the beer halls in Bavaria where such speech fostered ( should I say festered) and indoctrinated many gullible people many students in the then revered German Universities. We might possibly still have 6 million more Jews and nearly a half million American Servicemen and women survivors.
    Contriteness, there was plenty of that on display at Nuremburg and outside the camps in East Germany and Poland when they were liberated.
    I am familiar with SAE and it specifically indoctrinates its members with intolerance wherever it has a presence (Oh shockingly its only presence is on college and university campuses).

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  4. Roy Smith  April 14, 2015

    Free speech is a key part of American democracy, however it seems to me it is not meant to be
    spoken to demean, intimidate or belittle people. Surely some type of discipline is/was
    in order, lest the university send a message that any and everything is okay. If there had not
    been such a long history of this kind of verbal and other abuse, no one could plead ignorance
    of how this has impacted the lives of many people and in such a negative way.

    There is a danger of Americans being enamored by free speech that free, liberal or unchecked or
    uncensored comments, speech, will turn on us a devour us or set such a negative tone that in the
    end we destroy our trust in one another.

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