As a small group of protesters took to the streets in Dallas, the University of Oklahoma’s decision to expel two fraternity members from North Texas who led a racist chant on a bus provoked criticism Wednesday from several legal experts who said the students’ words, however odious, are constitutionally protected free speech.
“The courts are very clear that hateful, racist speech is protected by the First Amendment,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional scholar and dean of the law school at the University of California, Irvine.
Official punishment for speech could be legal if the students’ chant constituted a direct threat, leading a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety, or if it seemed likely to provoke an immediate violent response, according to Chemerinsky and several other legal scholars, liberal and conservative alike.
But in this case, the experts said, there’s no evidence of any direct threat or provocation. And as a publicly financed institution, the university is subject to constitutional boundaries.
The University of Oklahoma has been in an uproar since videos surfaced of Sigma Alpha Epsilon members chanting a song Saturday night in which they used racial slurs to boast that they would never accept an African-American member. The song also referred to lynching with the words, “You can hang ’em from a tree.”
The first video was recorded as fraternity members and their dates rode a bus to a formal event, was later posted online, and was discovered and publicized Sunday by OU Unheard, a black student group.
Despite the legal concerns expressed by scholars, the university’s handling of the incident — including the swift shutting of the chapter and its fraternity house and the expulsion of the two students — has gained wide support on campus. Students interviewed Wednesday said they backed President David Boren’s decision to expel the two, focusing on the reference to lynching.
“I think what they said was not just offensive,” said Maggie Savage, 20, a sophomore. “If you do anything to make students in a community feel unsafe, you lose the privilege of being able to attend the university.”
The campus has seen daily protests since the video went public. On Wednesday night, the demonstrations spread to North Texas.
More than a dozen protesters marched outside the northeast Dallas home of the former OU student caught in the video, offering chants of their own — against racism.
“Racism is taught,” the protesters chanted. “Silence is consent. … Teach your kids another way: No modern-day KKK.”
The protest was initiated by the Next Generation Action Network, a Grand Prairie-based organization that has also protested the shooting of an unarmed man by a Grapevine police officer.
The group’s founder and president, Dominique Alexander, said he wanted “to make a bold statement” about Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the video and those in it.
His group called for a federal investigation of possible civil-rights violations by the fraternity and urged Dallas residents to take racist acts seriously.
“This was brought to us very boldly, and we need to address this very boldly,” he said. “We are coming here so the neighbors, everybody knows what is going on.”
As police officers stood quietly in front of the house and watched, the protesters marched up and down the street near the home of Parker Rice, who was a freshman member of the fraternity.
The ranch-style brick home was empty Wednesday night. In a statement to The Dallas Morning News on Tuesday, Rice said his family cannot stay at the home because of “threatening calls as well as frightening talk on social media.”
Rice, 19, a 2014 graduate of Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas who played on the school’s football team, apologized for his actions in the statement and said he had withdrawn from the university.
“My goal for the long-term is to be a man who has the heart and courage to reject racism wherever I see or experience it in the future,” he said.
The protesters called for the students to make a public video of their apology.
“We know what we saw on that video is true and authentic,” Alexander said. “But we can’t tell on a piece of paper if what we see is true and authentic.”
How change happens
At the protest Wednesday, Candee Fields and her son, Daniel Maynard, 26, watched from their car. They decided to drive from Richardson to the demonstration. Maynard, who is biracial, said he and his mother were hurt by the video and wanted to speak out.
When they arrived on the street, Maynard had second thoughts after seeing all the cameras and signs. He told his mother, “Let’s go. Let’s go.”
Fields encouraged him to stay and watch, even though the group was small. “No,” she told him. “This is how change comes about.”
Mike Grimm, who lives across from the Rices, said he didn’t mind the protesters walking up and down the street but cautioned them against criticizing the whole neighborhood for not joining in. One of the protesters, who was not affiliated with Next Generation, declined to identify himself but yelled accusatory statements at neighbors and police.
“To say the whole neighborhood is racist is painting with a broad brush,” Grimm said. “Everyone is a little sickened about what’s happened.”
The parents of another Dallas-area student shown on the video also issued an apology. Brody and Susan Pettit said their son, Levi, will suffer the consequences of his actions for life. Levi Pettit, 20, is a 2014 graduate of Highland Park High School, where he played on the school’s golf team.
Students took to Facebook and other social media this week to defend their schools, saying the actions by Rice and Pettit do not reflect their high schools or their students and alumni.
More OU response
On Wednesday, Boren announced the creation of a new position — vice president for the university community. That person, who has not yet been hired, will be responsible for overseeing diversity programs and will report directly to the president.
Also Wednesday, several groups of potential students toured OU with their parents.
Mary Moore and her 16-year-old daughter, Maddi, said they considered backing out of their visit after the video surfaced but changed their minds, mostly because of Boren’s swift action.
“If they definitely didn’t do anything about it … I probably wouldn’t have come here,” said Maddi Moore, a high school junior from Southlake.
When the Christian student group InterVarsity set up a display at OU two weeks ago to solicit feedback from students on race relations and other issues, response was tepid, said Rubin Samuel, 22, a senior electrical engineering major. The same display this week drew dozens of students, many of them eager to talk about race, diversity and other issues surrounding the release of the video.
“I think the way to move forward with something like this is to keep it in our conversations, not sweep it under the rug after a few weeks,” said Samuel, who is Indian-American.
The involvement of at least two Dallas-area students in the racist video led to soul-searching in Texas as well.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, a board member for Jesuit College Preparatory School, said he was “appalled” by the video.
“This is real, it’s got to be dealt with, and we’ve got to be honest about it,” Rawlings said.
At the University of Texas at Austin, the president of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter issued a statement denying that his group had ever performed a similar chant.
Luke Cone said he could “speak on behalf of my fraternity brothers that we are all profoundly distressed” about the language in the video.
This report includes material from The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News and The Associated Press.