This article contains explicit and potentially offensive terms that are essential to reporting on this situation.
Last month, a prisoner serving time at a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Penn., was listening to a local radio broadcast when the speakers spat out a string of racist phrases.
“Niggers,” one of the voices said. “Black people should be dead,” said another. A third voice said, “Lynch them.” The following week, the prisoner told a local prisoner advocacy group about what he heard, and the group contacted the station: WVBU, the student radio station at Bucknell University. On Monday, the three students featured in the broadcast -- which was called “Happy Times" -- were expelled.
“It is clear to me that this is not an isolated incident,” John Bravman, Bucknell’s president, said in an email to students this week. “Racism exists on campuses across the country and, in fact, throughout society. We need to look no further than recent news headlines to see that.”
In the weeks since the University of Oklahoma campus was rocked by a video showing fraternity members there singing a racist song, several institutions have found themselves dealing with similar crises. And so far the responses of presidents have been noticeably swift, forceful and public. In years past, many such incidents led to pledges by college leaders to conduct investigations. This year, punishment hasn't been delayed.
Bucknell administrators learned of the broadcast last Thursday and identified the students by that evening. The campus was told of the incident in an email on Friday, and the three students were expelled on Monday. On Tuesday, Bravman invited students to an assembly to discuss the issues raised by the incident.
The response mirrors that of Oklahoma’s president, David Boren. A video depicting members of the Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon singing a racist song surfaced online March 8, and Boren released a statement about it that same evening. The next day, a Monday, he announced the fraternity was being kicked out of its house, and that week the university expelled the two members who appeared to have led the song. Several other members of the fraternity have since also been punished.
Also this month, North Carolina State University disbanded its chapter of Phi Kappa Pi after a pledge book containing racist and sexist language was made public, and the University of Mary Washington suspended activities of its rugby club after members were caught singing a sexist song.
The same week the video surfaced at Oklahoma, a racist email sent by a fraternity member at the University of Maryland at College Park also appeared online. The email, which was months old by the time it leaked, encouraged its recipients to “fuck consent.” The student used racial slurs to explain which ethnic groups were banned from a fraternity rush event.
Maryland later announced that the student who sent the email would not be returning to campus next semester -- a decision, the university said, that was made with “mutual consent.” In the hours after the university first addressed the email, Maryland’s president, Wallace Loh, took to Twitter to condemn the email and answer student questions.
Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, praised the public way in which Loh and others have addressed the racist and sexist comments. At Bucknell, a university spokesman said that it seems very few students, if any, heard the radio broadcast when it aired, meaning that for many on campus, it was the message from the president that first brought the comments to their attention.
“By making the community aware of these behaviors, you create the best opportunity for change, when students themselves can rise up in protest about acts of racism and bigotry,” Kruger said. “We will see change in this area when this kind of behavior is no longer tolerated. Bringing attention to the issue publicly is a needed step in the community addressing this together.”
There can be a downside to elevating offensive comments to such a public stage, however, warned Judith Shapiro, former president of Barnard College, saying that “to treat stupid, offensive comments as some serious contribution to any kind of discourse, it almost grants it too much power and respect." Shapiro made a similar argument in a recent essay for Inside Higher Ed.
But with some incidents, including the video at Oklahoma, the behavior is so well-known and disruptive that such a response is the right move, she said.
“What presidents often do is talk about how diversity and inclusion are great values of the institution, and that’s certainly true and often fine,” Shapiro said. “But it can be really important for presidents to respond with a very strong and powerful condemnation of the behavior.”
Loh’s Twitter conversation began with such a condemnation, but it largely turned into a discussion about how a public university could effectively punish a student for offensive speech while honoring his First Amendment rights.
“It is one of our nation’s core values that the government should not be able to tell us what we can and cannot say,” Loh tweeted. “Protecting speech, however, does not mean agreeing with it. And quite honestly, I am struggling with justifying this email as speech. Where does free speech and hate speech collide? What should prevail? What justification can we have that tacitly condones this kind of hate?”
It’s a question that surrounded the expulsion of the fraternity members at Oklahoma, as well. While Boren was widely praised for his response, free speech advocates called the punishment unconstitutional because it responded to protected speech, however offensive. As Bucknell is a private institution and not an extension of the government, the expulsion there cannot be challenged (legally) in the same way.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education argues, however, that while private institutions like Bucknell are not legally required to follow the First Amendment, even they are meant to be a place where freedom of expression is paramount.
“Bucknell is a private college, and thus not bound by the First Amendment,” Will Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy at FIRE, said. “However, given the traditional role of liberal arts universities as 'marketplaces of ideas,' and in the absence of explicit statements or policies that privilege other institutional values above freedom of expression, students and faculty might reasonably expect to enjoy the same speech protection that they would at a public institution.”
FIRE has also expressed concern that due process rights are being violated when colleges like Oklahoma, Bucknell and Mary Washington move so quickly to punish students for offensive language. Last week, the group praised Pennsylvania State University for taking its time in punishing members of a fraternity that used a Facebook page to post photos of unconscious women. The university has held off on punishments, for now, and is launching a major study of fraternity life.
"Patience is required to allow these investigations to continue unimpeded so that we can achieve a level of justice that fully matches the outcomes of the investigations," Eric J. Barron, president of Penn State, said in a statement last week.
In an interview Tuesday, Bravman, Bucknell’s president, said that he and his university strongly support free speech and due process. He would not comment on the context of the language, but said that no matter the context, the three students crossed a line.
“There’s no question about that,” Bravman said. “This was hate speech. We own the station and the equipment, and the students were acting as agents of the university. They violated our community standards, and that’s really what this comes down to.”