Students at the University of Delaware held a “south of the border” party where attendees dressed up like Hispanic gangsters and Latino gardeners wearing nametags with Latino names such “Pedro” and “Jose.” Campus outrage ensued. Several of the students involved have apologized.
University of Delaware President David Roselle released a statement on May 11 praising university members who responded responsibly to the party, which they found offensive. He said, “Candid and respectful conversations have helped resolve this situation and have led to a better understanding of the perspectives of others.”
President Roselle also promised to withhold punishment from the students for speech and actions protected under the First Amendment:
The actions of the students attending the party are not criminal, and we will respect their First Amendment rights. Accordingly, these students will not face disciplinary action through the University’s student judicial system.
While the students have been spared official university punishment, several students were members of the Phi Sigma Pi honors fraternity and are facing a year-long suspension from the fraternity.
Fraternities certainly have the right to punish their members for violation of internal rules, but too often fraternities do the university administration’s dirty work by punishing students for protected speech. Fraternities need to realize that their problems with campus speech policies are part of a larger trend of campus censorship.
Fraternities would do better if they were adamant in defending speech protected under the First Amendment, even if that speech is rude or offensive to some. As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff and Matthew Vasconcellos wrote in the Fraternal Law article “Practical Advice for Fraternities Caught in the Battle for Free Speech on Campus”:
Successfully defending against an attack on the free speech rights of other groups may prevent administrators from attempting to use similar tactics in the future.
Defending speech does not mean agreeing with it. But the principle of free speech is precious and all campus organizations, fraternities included, should be loath to concede any of it.