By AKANKSHA SAH
The recent break-up of the University of Oklahoma’s chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity and the expulsion of two University of Oklahoma students for their role in leading a fraternity-wide racist chant have led to many concerns about the potential infringement on their First Amendment rights. The chant, sung to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” mentions the n-word, as well as references to lynchings of blacks, and asserts that the SAE will never include a black student.
Some people have raised concerns over the fact that, as the students were only chanting, they were merely exercising their right to the freedom of speech, as assured to them by the Bill of Rights. These people claim that it was unconstitutional for the University of Oklahoma to expel the students and shut down the chapter of their fraternity because providing such harsh and immediate consequences without due process was essentially denying them their right to speak freely.
While it certainly is true that the University of Oklahoma, in reacting as it did to the racist chant, restricted the students’ freedom of speech, what opponents of the decision do not realize is that the University of Oklahoma has complete authority to do so. The First Amendment reads as follows:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Surprisingly short for such an official and wide reaching law, the First Amendment was written with great thought and specificity. The opening words “Congress shall make no law respecting…” very specifically state the Congress cannot create any laws restricting the freedoms mentioned. Forms of federal, state and local government have been officially included by the Supreme Court as government bodies that cannot establish restrictive laws, which leads to the question of whether the University of Oklahoma, a public university, has the right to do so. If one only takes into account the fact that the university is owned by the Oklahoma state government, the logical conclusion is that the University of Oklahoma does not have the right to create rules that restrict the freedom of speech, as it did in its response to the racist chant.
However, it is important to note the exceptions that have to be made for schools. In the 1969 Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court established that schools may justify the suppression of speech or expression, given that the school’s officials are able to prove that the conduct in question would “materially and substantially interfere” with the operation of the school. The University of Oklahoma is a place where students of all races are free to receive an education. Therefore, it is necessary for the school to provide a completely accepting, welcoming environment for all races. This policy is so intrinsically linked with the university’s ability to function as it does that any expression or speech promoting racism becomes something that would “materially and substantially” interfere with the operation of the school as it is meant to be.
Racism is unacceptable no matter what the situation, and, unfortunately, people are often free to be racist without any consequences. Regardless of the personal views of people who either support or oppose the University of Oklahoma’s decision, however, what matters in the end is the legitimacy and legality of the decision.
Americans take their Constitutional rights very seriously, and there are many instances, especially in schools, in which people feel that their basic freedoms are being infringed upon. Even small things like dress codes or rules on cell phone usage are often looked upon as restrictions of rights, but it is important to remember that schools have the constitutional authority to restrict these rights, as the University of Oklahoma did in this case.