In the wake of a student’s tragic death, administrators at Florida State University are clamping down on free speech and freedom of association by banning Greek activities until further notice. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the facts closely match what happened at Louisiana State University just over a month ago.
Following the possibly alcohol-related death of FSU student Andrew Coffey and the unrelated arrest of another for cocaine trafficking, Florida State President John Thrasher announced the indefinite suspension of all Greek activities.
Affecting an estimated 7,588 Greek students, proscribed activities include “new member events, council or chapter meetings, chapter organized tailgates, chapter events such as socials, philanthropy, retreats, intramurals, organized participation in Market Wednesday and organized participation in Homecoming.” (Emphasis added.)
Violating the policy could result in “immediate disciplinary action,” and the policy will be in place “[until there is] a new normal for Greek Life at the university,” President Thrasher told Florida State University News.
The impulse to take dramatic and sweeping action following the death of a student is understandable. Coffey’s death is a terrible tragedy that will have a tremendous impact on the lives of his friends and family.
But as the saying goes: Hard cases make bad law. When emotions are highest, and the call to action loudest, we must be most critical of the actions we take.
Make no mistake, the aforementioned ban on the lawful assembly and association of their students is illegal. Though these restrictions are likely well-intentioned and follow a tragic loss, that does not absolve or exempt Florida State from its First Amendment obligations as a public institution.
The Florida State administration is taking the easy way out of a hard situation by issuing a blanket ban on Greek life, telling Greek students they can have their freedom back when they fix their culture.
Not only is this illegal, it is also setting an impossible expectation for the students, without explaining how they will be able to vindicate themselves. What does a “new normal” look like, and how can it be achieved in an atmosphere where organizations are banned from any normal activities? How does one measure how far the Greek organizations must come before their rights are restored? How does one measure “culture” at all, and to what extent is is appropriate for a government agency to determine when a culture is acceptable? Florida State must answer all of these questions if it is to address whatever underlying problem might be present in Greek life at the university. It has as yet shown no signs of having done so, and starting off such an effort by breaking the law is the wrong approach to take.