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Fraternity Members Suspended for Racist, Homophobic Video

Conduct infuriated many, but some say it was free expression that should not be punished.

June 11, 2018
 

Syracuse University announced last week that it has suspended 15 members of the Theta Tau fraternity after videos surfaced in April showing pledges using racial and anti-Semitic slurs, mocking gay sex, and simulating the sexual assault of disabled people.

Dean of Students Robert Hradsky issued a brief statement about the sanctions Friday.

“The student conduct process for the students involved in the Theta Tau videos has been ongoing since the alleged behavior first came to light in April,” the statement read. “I am writing today to report that the hearing and deliberations, overseen by the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, have concluded, and the students were notified of their respective outcomes and subsequent sanctions.”

In total, 18 students faced charges under the university's code of conduct, three of whom accepted university-proposed sanctions after an informal resolution process. The remaining 15 underwent a formal student conduct investigation process. Syracuse could not comment on how long the suspensions would last, however CBS New York reported that the suspensions could last for one to two years. The students will be given an opportunity to appeal, which could take several weeks. Prior to individual student sanctions, the university suspended and then expelled the Theta Tau chapter in late April.

The university is facing pressure from both students and free speech advocates about its handling of the incident.

The editorial board of Syracuse’s student-run newspaper The Daily Orange called on the recently elected student body president and vice president to hold administrators accountable and better advocate for marginalized communities on campus in the wake of the videos.

“[Student president] Salih and [vice president] Rosenblum can’t be afraid to stand up to administrators to amplify the voices and needs of communities who feel excluded from conversations among high-ranking [Syracuse University] officials,” they wrote.

The faculty of the Syracuse School of Education also penned a letter in The Daily Orange asking the campus to work harder to dismantle "all forms of violence, hatred and systems of domination."

"The recent video is just one more indication and reminder of the interconnected ways that white supremacy is advanced at Syracuse University and in our communities through racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, sexist and anti-Semitic practices," they wrote.

The education faculty also called Syracuse's emphasis on diversity and inclusion and implicit bias training "an insufficient response" to hate and violence on campus. Recognize Us, a student advocacy group that formed after the videos were released, also put forward a list of demands to the Syracuse administration and asked them to respond by Sept. 3.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education -- better known as FIRE -- a free speech watchdog group, is also criticizing Syracuse, saying that the university is violating the suspended students' First Amendment rights and calling the videos a "satirical fraternity roast."

“When a university expels students for a private roast consisting of completely protected speech, it has no business pretending that it cares about free expression,” Ari Kohn, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at FIRE, said in a press release. “Despite objections that these students were being tried as a group, by a biased committee, and ‘represented’ by an agent of the university, Syracuse has the gall to maintain that justice was served.”

Syracuse is a private university, and therefore students are not necessarily protected under the First Amendment. But private universities can be criticized for failing to follow their own free speech policies, which FIRE believes is the case at Syracuse.

Syracuse's Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities maintains that "students have the right to express themselves freely on any subject provided they do so in a manner that does not violate the Code of Student Conduct." However, the Code of Student Conduct prohibits "harassment, whether physical, verbal or electronic, oral, written or video, which is beyond the bounds of protected free speech, directed at a specific individual, easily construed as 'fighting words,' and likely to cause an immediate breach of the peace."

Syracuse responded to FIRE's criticisms with the following statement.

"The videos showed extremely troubling, offensive and deeply disturbing behavior and conduct. They included words and behaviors that are extremely racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist, and hostile to people with disabilities. The conduct displayed in the videos is deeply harmful and contrary to the values and community standards we expect of our students. There is absolutely no place at Syracuse University for behavior or language that degrades any individual or group’s race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identify, disability or religious beliefs. Syracuse University’s student conduct process respects the rights of all students, and is designed to lead to fair outcomes in difficult cases. The university strives to maintain a fully inclusive learning environment, and must respond to incidents when alleged conduct creates a hostile environment on the university’s campus or in its programs."

Below are the two videos from the Theta Tau initiation ceremony that have been shared online and that sparked debate over what should be done about the students involved.

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