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Randolph-Macon Forgets Its Promises of Free Expression in Responding to Party Theme

Last weekend, a fraternity at Randolph-Macon College (Va.) hosted a “USA vs. Mexico” theme party. Critics branded it as racist, and the college is now taking action, stating that it is “in the process of holding the individuals and groups involved responsible through our judicial process.” Any forthcoming punishment, though, would run contrary to Randolph-Macon’s broad promises of students’ free expression.

Photos show partygoers dressed in sombreros and fake moustaches, and The Huffington Post reports that party attendees played drinking games, including one in which “Americans” attempted to catch “illegal immigrants.” But as my colleague Ari Cohn pointed out in discussing a similar “game” yesterday here on The Torch, expressive activity cannot be censored just because it may be offensive.

Randolph-Macon is a private college, and is therefore not bound by the First Amendment. But its student handbook unambiguously promises its students the same rights that the First Amendment affords students at public colleges. It makes this promise repeatedly. First, in the preamble to the “Student Bill of Rights”:

The freedom of inquiry and the freedom of expression are indispensable freedoms to an academic community. These freedoms may only be limited by the responsibility of the College to secure and protect the general well being and safety of the community.

And under the section on “Freedom of Student Organizations”:

Students and student organizations have the right to the freedom of discussion, of expression, and to orderly support of causes of interest to them as long as they do not disrupt the essential operation of the College.

And again under “Freedom of Off-Campus Activities”:

Students have the right to the same freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, and petition they are granted by way of citizenship.

There are no allegations FIRE is aware of that the USA v. Mexico party, however offensive people may have found it, disrupted the operations of the college. Nor are we aware of any allegations that the party was a hazard to student safety. Per college policy, Randolph-Macon students should, therefore, be able to host parties with offensive themes and dress in controversial costumes without being subject to investigation and discipline.

As Popehat’s Ken White observed in writing today about a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant” event planned by Young Conservatives of Texas at the University of Texas-Austin but canceled after pressure from the university, school community members who disagree with the expression of their peers can and should be able to criticize events they find offensive. That’s one of the central principles of the “marketplace of ideas.” But official action by the school to punish or silence particular viewpoints impedes, rather than contributes to, that marketplace.

Yet Randolph-Macon has indicated that it may subject the students who hosted the party to discipline. Indeed, NBC12 in Virginia reported that the fraternity’s chapter activities have already been suspended.

Unfortunately, Randolph-Macon is not alone in targeting themed parties—well after Halloween season, California Polytechnic State University is investigating a party themed “Colonial Bros and Nava-hos.” As FIRE’s Joe Cohn explained to Cal Poly student newspaper Mustang News, the school may not punish those involved in the party under the First Amendment.

The continuing trend of college investigations into themed parties is a threat to free expression on campuses nationwide, both at public universities and at colleges that promise a right to free speech. Randolph-Macon has a legal and moral obligation to bring its actions in line with its stated commitments to free expression and allow the fraternity to continue its normal operations.

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