Thursday, March 26, 2015

The University of Oklahoma Signifies the Death of Free Speech in American Universities, and Defines Its Newly Accepted Limits

As we all know, a video has surfaced showing students of the University of Oklahoma singing a racist chant.  They were members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and while on a bus carrying them to a formal fraternity function, the students were captured chanting “There’ll never be a ni**** SAE! You can hang him from a tree, but he will never sign with me.  There’ll never be a ni**** SAE!”  

The chant was undoubtedly racist, and insensitive to the shameful legacy of racial lynching in America.  Those involved are worthy of derision, and the community has resoundingly trumpeted its disapproval, as has the entire nation.

The question at hand, however, has never been about whether what the boys did was ethically reprehensible.  It clearly was.  The more pressing question that we must confront now is whether such an act is worthy of expulsion from a state-funded university, and what that means for the state of education in this country if it is.  And beyond that, we must consider whether freedom of speech is anything more than a mantelpiece in America which, though fondly remembered and often superficially revered, has become little more than an old, dusty concept in a culture which is bent on cultivating homogenized thought.   

At the University of Oklahoma, two of the students involved in the chanting were indeed expelled.  Most disturbing for me is not that such sentiments are uttered within such fringe environments as this.  Honestly, can anyone say that these boys would ever consider weaving a noose with the intent of hurting someone?  Yes, that's rhetorical, because it would be an entirely stupid suggestion which would recuse the accuser from any intellectual forum.  The real problem, however, is that so few Americans seem outraged at the frivolous decision to derail these youths’ lives over something as practically inconsequential as their offensive, yet presumptively protected free speech. 

University president David Boren announced a decision to expel the youths via Twitter, where he is cited as having said:

I have emphasized that I have zero tolerance for this kind of threatening racist behavior at the University of Oklahoma.  I hope that the entire nation will join us in having zero tolerance of such racism when it raises its ugly head in other situations around the country.  I am extremely proud of the reaction and response expressed by our entire university family – students, faculty, staff, and alumni about this incident.  They are “Real Sooners” who believe in mutual respect for all.   

Perhaps most troubling about Boren’s statement is that not only is he making explicit efforts to regulate the content of speech on his own campus, but he is imploring all other universities to follow suit.  

These boys are meant to be examples, make no mistake, and the punishment for their offensive utterances is being exacted without the courtesy of a show trial.  Boren and the university have cited no specific part of the conduct code that the students had violated to justify their decision.   After all, their words didn’t hurt anyone (aside from hurting some people’s feelings), nor did they explicitly threaten to physically harm anyone in particular.  Consider that members, and indeed the president, of the Muslim Student Association at UCLA have been caught leading chants of “Death to Israel! Death to the Jews!” with no such punishment as expulsion handed down by university administrators.  (Such events are commonplace, by the way, extensively documented by Daniel Greenfield here.)   By contrast, rhetorical salvos against SAE by OU officials and media sensationalism have yielded death threats against the fraternity’s members.

The message to other college students at OU and around the country is clear, however.  There are some things that you just can’t say, if what you say sufficiently offends others who share the views of your school’s administration.

David Boren’s statement overtly seeks to replace the notion of “freedom of speech” enumerated in our First Amendment and repeatedly upheld by our courts, supplanting it with “free speech which is subject to limitations determined by the state.”  The latter is fascism, not freedom.

Freedom is a messy thing.  But the purpose of learning, and ostensibly, our universities, should be to seek the truth amidst the clutter. 

In a letter to William Roscoe penned December 27th, 1820, Thomas Jefferson spoke of the purpose of the newly founded University of Virginia.  “The institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind,” he writes, “for here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” 

This is the best way to achieve intellectual progress, not the suppression of thoughts contrary to perceived norms and a social status quo.   As Robby Soave at explains:

A school is exactly the kind of place where evil views should do battle with moral and logical views, and lose.  We have everything to gain by confronting racism head-on in an intellectual setting that a university purportedly provides, and a lot to lose by trampling students’ rights in a misguided rush to do the opposite.

In short, bad ideas are more consistently destroyed in an open marketplace of ideas, if one has any faith in humanity’s potential for reason.  But that reality ceases expression when our institutions of learning disavow the ambition to cultivate reasonable individuals in favor of becoming factories which produce fascists, blindly supportive of singular viewpoints. 

There is clear substance warranting litigation against OU, and the lines in this social battle are being drawn.  The SAE fraternity is reportedly preparing a lawsuit against the university, and OU has hired a former federal judge to investigate racism within the fraternity.  The PC thought police of the left are celebrating the university’s decision to expel these students and eagerly awaiting the coming witch hunt, while constitutionalists and libertarians are rightfully condemning both. 

This may seem a small and insignificant story, but in the trenches of cultural warfare, inches matter.  Instead of being allowed to go back to class, and hopefully educated as to why chanting racist songs about murder is wrong, the pillorying of these boys in the public square could go a long way toward further homogenizing thought in the state-sponsored indoctrination camps that we call universities.

William Sullivan is a frequent contributor to American Thinker.  He can be followed on Twitter.