Free speech expert questions suspension of UW fraternity

By May 30, 2012

A UW-Madison free speech expert is questioning whether the university had the evidence to suspend a school fraternity for two years.

Donald Downs, a UW-Madison political science professor, said he is reviewing the case with the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, an independent faculty group that takes on university issues like free speech and due process.

Last week, the university released a decision to suspend Delta Upsilon after fraternity members reportedly taunted two black female students using socioeconomic terms. The Committee on Student Organizations wrote that it believes a bottle was thrown but could not determine whether it was aimed at the two women, according to a decision released last week.

"You look at the evidence they themselves went through, it’s not clear to me that the level of harm was sufficient to justify this kind of sanction," Downs said.

A representative for a national advocacy group on rights in education called it a "stretch" to punish Delta Upsilon because someone may have thrown a bottle.

The university "does not properly find that the bottle-thrower was acting for the organization, since it does not even conclude who threw (or nudged) the bottle," wrote Adam Kissel, vice president of programs at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, in an email.

Two fraternity members allegedly asked the women how it feels "to be peasants" and "to be poor" after the women mistakenly walked on fraternity property in March. The university committee did not find the fraternity in violation of anti-discrimination statutes because socioeconomic status is not a protected class under federal, state or university guidelines.

Instead, the committee found the bottle throwing to be in violation of a university code of conduct requiring the fraternity members to do no harm to a member of the university community while representing the fraternity.

The committee members found "no substantiating evidence" to suggest a fraternity member was aiming to hit the two women, according to the decision, but wrote that they believe that a glass bottle was thrown during the exchange.

Eric Knueve, an assistant dean in UW-Madison’s Division of Student Life, said once an organization is found in violation of a code, the punishment is based on that incident and the organization’s past history. The fraternity had just come off probation for underage drinking when this incident occurred.

"I think DU acted in a reprehensible way here," Downs said. "That’s not the issue. The issue was whether or not this thing was fairly decided in the end."

Delta Upsilon can also appeal the decision to the Dean of Students Office, but neither its chapter president nor the executive director of the national organization has responded to emails and phone calls.

Schools: University of Wisconsin – Madison