Freedom of Stupid Speech

The recent mega-flap at the University of Oklahoma with regard to the virally gone (and context-less) video of a bus of frat boys singing a very stupid set of alternate words to “If You’re Happy and You Know It” ought to be a cause of serious concern to the American populace.  The incident threatens one of the key rights afforded citizens of this country by the Constitution, and deserves to be front-page news.

This despite the fact that seemingly everyone has missed the real issue.

What’s wrong about the incident isn’t that a few dumb frat boys sang a song at which many appear to have taken offense; it’s that the sweeping censure dealt the entire Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter amounts to nothing less than a flagrant violation of the latter’s first amendment rights.  Far, far, far more important than a fallaciously assumed right not to be confronted with offensive speech is the right to free speech.  It’s the old paradox of having to defend to the death your right to say something with which I disagree.

That I view the initial incident as something of a tempest in a teapot should be clear by now.  A bunch of frat boys did something stupid.  Big surprise.  That’s what frat boys do.  (As I mentioned with regard to the Jamie Benn incident a few weeks ago, the trick in today’s world isn’t to avoid saying stupid things; it’s to avoid saying stupid things when there’s a microphone in your face.  The fact that cell phones have put all of us on perpetual hidden camera is very, very scary, but let’s take one civil liberties crisis at a time.)  Was using The Word So Heinous Newspapers Are Afraid To Print It a lapse of good taste?  Sure:  there are preferable terms for describing African-Americans.  Was the “message” of the ten-second jingle offensive to many people, particularly given the official desegregation policies of this country?  Of course.  Was the “message” a socio-political statement on the level of the Communist Manifesto?

Of course not.  (Moreover, while it obviously did express the views of a few of SAE’s members, it in no way aspired to being an official pronouncement by the fraternity.)

There is also something ridiculously disingenuous in suddenly affecting horror that the membership of a historically all-white fraternity should express the view that said fraternity should remain all-white.  I am in no way implying that a return to segregation is a core value of Sigma Alpha Epsilon today, but, given the fraternity’s history, doesn’t it stand to reason that it would attract young men who (with as yet unformed and uneducated minds) would like the idea of belonging to a segregated fraternity?  Is their idiotic jingle that much of a surprise?  Hadn’t everyone in the university community been aware that such sentiments were to be found within the precincts of Sigma Alpha Epsilon for as long as it has existed?

In today’s world, I tend to think that disingenuousness is far more commonly encountered than hopeless naivete.

Again, I’m not saying that I agree with the attitudes embodied in the now-infamous SAE “racist chant”.  I don’t.  There is, however, a difference between idiocy and racism, and I do feel that the ten seconds of those young men singing and clapping captured on video is an example of the former.

I also realize that others would take greater offense at the incident. That’s their choice, to which I would never deny that they are entitled, and I can understand why some would choose to exercise that choice.   I just don’t think it’s worth the effort.

Nevertheless, even someone taking heated offense and seething with possibly righteous indignation at the video ought to be horrified at the University’s reaction.  The entire fraternity (most of whose members wouldn’t have fit on the bus in the video, and who are, thus, free of what blame might be affixed to the incident) was summarily suppressed, and two students were expelled, obviously (if only because of the time frame) without benefit of a proper hearing.

On what grounds?  Because the University didn’t like what the students were saying?  Or could it be the more nefarious reality that the video was making the University look bad?

I have a suspicion that I overuse the phrase “specious political correctness,” but what we have here is an exceedingly dangerous instance of precisely that phenomenon.  People are exploding with outrage because of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon video because it’s “racist” — and “racism” is now an accusation which can be lobbed at all manner of speech, often with the terrifyingly summary consequences we’ve seen this week.  “Racism” (I use the quotes intentionally, as many of the people using the label are seemingly unacquainted with the dictionary) is the height of political incorrectness (that statement has nothing to do with the fact that true racism is bad), and almost always results in a foot race to see who can condemn it first.

Let’s call that knee-jerk specious political correctness.

The only flaw in the system is that suppression of free speech is against the laws of this country.  Thus, even if the SAE boys are de jure racists (without quotation marks), they still have the right to think and speak as they wish.  First amendment lawyers have long argued as to the question of a limitation of certain extremes of speech, but a bunch of inane college boys isn’t exactly comparable to a Nazi hate rally.  Citing ten seconds of sophomoric idiocy as something which might come under such a heading is an insult to the jurists who have afforded the question so much serious debate.

University President Boren spoke of a “zero-tolerance policy” for “racism.”  Beware:  zero-tolerance can all too quickly become hair-trigger.  Which, I think, is what it became in this case.

The front page of yesterday’s newspaper showed a picture of University of Oklahoma students rallying.  As several of the students in the front row had tape across their mouths, my first assumption was one of relief, and that the taped mouths were a comment on the abuse of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon members’ first amendment rights. Very disturbingly, that was not the case, from which we learn that university students today not only buy into knee-jerk specious political correctness, but also that they don’t understand the obvious symbolism of protesting with tape over one’s mouth.

The suppression — and literal dismantling — of the fraternity house on campus isn’t the act of a democracy dedicated to desegregation.  Rather, it’s an act worthy of a Thought Police empowered to make dissidents “disappear” overnight.  For all I know, they may burn the house to the ground, plow it over, and construct a small park commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma March on the site, erasing any trace that Sigma Alpha Epsilon ever existed, and that racist (or “racist”) sentiment was ever to be encountered on the University of Oklahoma campus.

In the current climate, the University and its president had their hands tied:  these wretched videos go wretchedly viral, everyone becomes hysterical, and woe unto you should you fail to draw first  and pull the “anti-racist” hair trigger.  President Boren succumbed to this pressure, and proceeded to do absolutely the wrong thing.  Given that he is president of a state university, I would think that he would have realized that he is even more bound by the first amendment than the president of a private university, who can literally afford to pick and choose his policies.   A state university needs to reflect the values of the government which funds it; free speech is one of those values.

In addition to making a mockery of free speech — and behaving like the arm of a totalitarian regime — the University failed miserably in its mission, which is to educate.  Above, I described the SAE students’ minds as “unformed and uneducated,” which, indeed, they are.  They’re at university so that they may learn about that of which they are ignorant.  If education (rather than image-saving) were really what the University was concerned about, it would set about teaching that busload of young idiots the American values which would encourage them to understand why you can’t go about singing that there’ll never be a[n African-American person] in your college fraternity.

(reprinted from, originally published May, 2015)

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