Early in discussions about the effects of the Internet on society, the question of whether technology is good or bad was frequently an opening salvo. Most reply, a paraphrase of Hamlet, it is neither good nor bad only circumstances make it so.
For example, is the scope and amplification of anonymous, cruel remarks about a women's sexuality by name on the gossip site categorized by her college or university a good or bad thing? How about the YouTube release of a video capturing racist shenanigans of fraternity members?
In the land of free speech, especially in state universities that have First Amendment obligations, the answer to these questions matter. Because the answer is not always simple, discourse is encouraged.
It is within this context I will take a position on the president's action to expel the two students who led the song. I support his decision.
"Wait, what about free speech and due process!" you say. Here's my reply.
That's what courts are for! No one will, could or should keep these young men from their day in court, should they choose to go. I predict, however, that their case will fail. Here's why.
In a society of ever-increasing and deeply regrettable violence, sexual assault, homophobia and racism on our campuses, it is the first duty of a president to protect the safety of students. That obligation does not rest on the clear and present danger standard of the First Amendment alone, but also in affirmatively creating an intellectual and social environment in which pedagogy, critical thinking and citizenship thrives.
"Sure, but what is the harm in a song?" This is your strongest point. Zealously representing their clients, plaintiffs' lawyers would most likely press it. In a societal vacuum, it might even win the day. In reality, that argument falters on the rocks of American history. In that light, it is arid, facetious and naive.
If sung in the their family homes, Fourth Amendment jurisprudence would protect these boys. In a higher educational community, where policy sets a higher standard than the floor of law, the President did the right and defensible thing.
Now a note to the young men involved: my advice, whatever it is worth to you, would be to seize this educational moment. With your parents’ help, you may find value in religious, cultural, even academic sources to gain understanding about why your actions, however harmless you may have intended them to be, are not benign. For your sake, do not get mired in other peoples’ politics on this question. Demonstrate how young person can learn and grow in a way that complements both of you and higher education. In time, should you choose this path, testify to a new understanding of this firestorm. Lead in in a positive way.
To fraternities in general: your unsupervised field day is over. However remiss we have all been in helping you out of shadows of abusive hazing, sexual assault and discriminatory behaviors, we -- administrators as well as the federal government, law enforcement and the courts – will shield our eyes no longer. We all bear some responsibility in not helping you along the way, allowing insurance companies to raise the legal drinking age that made you kings on campus and a sexualized culture of music, movies and advertising that preys on your hormones. Between Title IX and the missions of our calling, we will not step away from our responsibilities to guide you better going forward.
And as for the Internet, the answer to the question of whether it's good or bad still remains one that depends on putting it in the legal, policy and ethical context of society.
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