By Robert Shibley at USA Today
The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter at the University of Oklahoma (OU) is giving America yet another crash course in just how offensive people can be when they put their minds to it. Members of the now defunct chapter are featured in a YouTube video singing a song on a bus that works in the “n-word” no less than three times, references lynching and pledges allegiance to an odious form of racial discrimination — no small feat for an 11-second clip.
And if you’re against racism, you should be glad they could do it.
Free speech has many benefits, but one of the most overlooked is its ability to warn us of truths about the world — especially when we’d rather not hear them. Doesn’t the video tell us something we need to know about the racial attitudes of at least some OU students? The protesters who flooded the OU campus this week certainly must think so.
University President David Boren has wasted no time condemning the SAE chapter, giving its members a single day to clear all their belongings out of their house and swearing that OU will give its members no help in finding new lodgings. He has also pledged to investigate whether further punitive action is possible against the students. But while OU may punish SAE if it finds that the chapter actually engaged in unlawful discrimination against African-American students, it cannot punish the fraternity members solely for the content of their expression.
Many people may find this disappointing. Indeed, punishing those who engage in offensive expression is perennially popular because it gives the impression that we’re “doing something” about the problem of racism, sexism and bigotry. In France, for instance, Holocaust denial has long been illegal, and just this year the country arrestedmore than 70 people for praising the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. France has put real teeth into laws that punish offensive speech.
Yet according to the Anti-Defamation League, 37% of the French harbor anti-Semitic opinions. In the U.S. — which, thanks to the First Amendment, has never banned Holocaust denial or hateful speech — that number is 9%, among the lowest in the world. While this comparison can’t capture all the differences between the two nations, it strongly suggests that punishing expression is no real cure for bigotry, and refusing to punish hateful speech does not lead inevitably to its spread.
Censorship isn’t necessary for those who are confident in the truth of their views. It’s a signal of insecurity and displays a fear that if an idea is allowed to be expressed, people will find that idea too attractive to resist. Somehow, college administrators are convinced that if they don’t officially punish racism, their students will be drawn to it like moths to a flame. But there’s simply no reason to expect that. Given the history of campus activism in our nation from the civil rights movement onward, there are myriad reasons to expect the opposite.
Instead of government crackdowns on a viewpoint, it is far better to let the marketplace of ideas determine the social consequences for racist speech. In this instance, the OU members of SAE are not only likely to spend the rest of their college careers as pariahs but to be hounded to the ends of the earth on social media and exposed for posterity on Google.
Baseless bigotry won’t survive in a truly free marketplace of ideas — which is what our campuses are supposed to be. College students are adults. Let’s allow them to make up their own minds about what to believe, free from the coercive power of the state.
Schools: University of Oklahoma