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Penn State Cites Due Process in Delaying Punishment for Fraternity

Earlier this month, the national Kappa Delta Rho (KDR) fraternity suspended its Pennsylvania State University chapter after the discovery of a private Facebook page containing pictures of passed out and/or naked women, hazing, and drug deals allegedly posted by KDR members. Penn State President Eric Barron wrote in a statement sent to the university community that the situation may warrant a “re-evaluation of the fraternity system.” But Barron wrote in another statement last Monday that Penn State won’t be taking immediate disciplinary action against KDR or its members, despite calls for the university to do so.

Barron made clear that he was “personally repulsed and shocked by” the behavior depicted on the Facebook page. His feelings, however, did not dictate his response as an administrator—principles of justice did. Barron wrote:

Some have indicated that expulsion or suspension of every member of the KDR fraternity is immediately needed. The motivation behind these requests is understandable, however, the criminal investigation by local police into the KDR matter continues, as does the process managed by our Office of Student Conduct. Patience is required to allow these investigations to continue unimpeded so that we can achieve a level of justice that fully matches the outcomes of the investigations. I ask for your understanding as due process proceeds.

He went on to note that fraternities and sororities contribute much to the community, and that the issue of how to “support[] the best of Greek life” while addressing its problems was not a simple one. “[I]ndividual members,” Barron said in an interview Wednesday, sometimes “deviate from the positive goals [Greek organizations] can pursue, [and] they not only tarnish the reputation of their brothers, but also the university community.” He argued that rather than punish full institutions, individuals should be punished for their own bad acts.

Penn State is also working closely with law enforcement to investigate the matter and to ensure that culpable parties are held responsible.

This is a refreshing stand for due process and common sense that stands in stark contrast to how other universities have handled similar circumstances recently. Last week, North Carolina State University disbanded its chapter of the Phi Kappa Pi fraternity after a pledge book containing derogatory language was publicized. A few weeks ago, University of Oklahoma President David Boren summarily expelled two members of the institution’s now-defunct chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), without due process, after they and other SAE members were caught on video participating in a racist chant. And, as my colleague Samantha Harris reported Thursday, the University of Mary Washington dissolved its men’s rugby club team after a video of some of its members singing a bawdy song was brought to an administrator. All of these cases hinge on expression that appears to be constitutionally protected—making the universities’ quick punitive action even more problematic.

FIRE commends President Barron for reminding the country that even in cases of alleged illegal or heinous conduct—in fact, especially in those cases—individuals must be judged based on their own actions and they must be afforded a hearing before they are punished.

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