Anne Ryman, USA Today, January 23, 2014
Just as social media played a big role in spreading images of partygoers at a controversial Arizona State University fraternity event on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, Twitter and Facebook have buzzed with debate over whether their behavior was racist and if it was free speech.
Many condemned the students’ actions at the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity party, which included partygoers wearing stereotypical hip-hop clothes and posing with hollowed-out watermelon cups, according to photos posted on the Internet.
Others felt university officials would be going too far if they expelled students who went to the party, arguing that the behavior, although offensive, still fell under the umbrella of the First Amendment.
On Thursday night, the university released a statement saying it has notified the fraternity that its recognition as a fraternity chapter at ASU has been permanently revoked.
University officials are still investigating and deciding how to handle individual cases of student discipline.
The Constitution prohibits government entities, including state universities such as ASU, from interfering with freedom of speech. But the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld exceptions, including speech that would incite reasonable people to immediate violence, harassment or threats or intimidation.
All the facts aren’t known, but the party incident raises questions about the intent of the speech, said Dan Pochoda, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.
“It does appear it was a conscious attempt to degrade an entire race, and anyone taking part in such action would know it increases the difficulty of students of color to participate in the educational community,” he said.
ASU officials put the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity on interim suspension Monday after receiving reports that fraternity members hosted an unregistered party on Sunday with racial overtones and underage drinking.
Local civil-rights leaders demanded that the university revoke the fraternity’s recognition, which means they couldn’t recruit members or hold meetings on campus.
They also want ASU to expel students who went to the party and take steps to create a “more accepting environment” at the university.
They threatened to boycott the university’s athletics and a fundraising campaign to rebuild Sun Devil Stadium unless their demands are met.
ASU is investigating the fraternity for four possible violations of the student code of conduct:
— Engaging in discriminatory activities.
— Off-campus conduct that may present a risk or danger.
— Violation of laws governing alcohol.
— Violation of earlier disciplinary sanction.
At the time of the party, the fraternity was on university probation for a fight in November 2012, when police reports say fraternity members confronted a rival fraternity member, an African-American, and beat him. He suffered a broken jaw, a concussion and cuts.
Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C., believes the Constitution protects the students’ right to dress in the manner they did as well as their offensive comments.
The Newseum is a nonprofit media education organization that includes the First Amendment Center.
The fraternity also may have a contract with the university that outlined expectations, which would be a separate issue from free speech.