Robes, a Salute and the ‘Face’ of Injustice

Ten former Gallaudet students are suing the university, arguing that statements the president made about their fraternity are defamatory.

June 16, 2021
 
Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Ten former students from Gallaudet University are suing the university and The Washington Post for what they say were defamatory statements that caused them financial damages.

At the center of the case is the suspension of Kappa Gamma, a fraternity at the university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. In June 2020, as protests for racial justice took place across the country, Gallaudet president Roberta Cordano announced that the fraternity would be suspended. At the same time, decades-old photos of fraternity members raising their arms at 45-degree angles in a palm-down salute, a gesture that bears similarities to a Nazi salute, were circulating on social media.

“We became aware of new information that led to renewed demands for change with Kappa Gamma, a fraternity with a long history at Gallaudet,” Cordano said in an ASL message to campus, according to a transcript of the message in English. “They have become the face of systemic racism in our community, with photographs of the salute and use of robes being shared on social media. This behavior is unacceptable.”

The Washington Post picked up that story, elevating its reach.

In July, Cordano clarified that the fraternity was not suspended because of old photos, but rather for violating a 2015 ban on the public use of any robes and regalia by fraternities. Kappa Gamma’s robes were traditionally blue for most of its history, with pointed hoods and insignia. The student government and the Black Student Union had raised concerns about the robes, which some have said bear similarities to Ku Klux Klan robes.

“In early June 2020, new evidence emerged about the Kappa Gamma student chapter’s intention to bring back the use of robes in their meetings and ceremonies and this information became public, triggering many members of the Gallaudet community,” Cordano said in a message to campus. “This prompted an immediate investigation that concluded the Kappa Gamma chapter violated the 2015 policy and resulted in the immediate suspension of the chapter while their case is progressing through the Office of Student Conduct.”

Four of the plaintiffs allege that they lost their jobs or were asked to resign because of their associations with Kappa Gamma. Six say they were passed over for promotions or lost business opportunities due to what they say are defamatory statements by Cordano.

Systemic racism, they argue, was deeply entrenched in Gallaudet culture, and as such, Kappa Gamma could not have been “the face” of such injustice. The salute and the robes were not racist, they argue. Such robes have been common at colleges and universities, they say. The salute members performed is a Bellamy salute, they said. The Bellamy salute originated in 1901 and was used in the U.S. to accompany the Pledge of Allegiance before a similar salute was adopted by the Nazis. Kappa Gamma discontinued the salute of its own volition around 1992, the plaintiffs said.

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The complaint also argues that Cordano, who admits that she has family members who have been part of the fraternity, used the fraternity as a scapegoat for her own inaction regarding systemic racism on campus. In July, Cordano responded to similar concerns.

“While Kappa Gamma used robes and a salute that is racist, it was not my intention to blame any one person or group for the systemic racism at Gallaudet as Kappa Gamma alone is not responsible for systemic racism,” she said in a message to campus. “Kappa Gamma is not the sole culprit nor the face of systemic racism alone at Gallaudet but became a face due to the re-emergence of the use of their robes at the same time as our national Black Lives Matter response to the brutal death of George Floyd and pictures of the racist rituals being circulated in social media.”

Many prominent Gallaudet alumni, including members of the Board of Trustees, have been associated with Kappa Gamma. Steven Florio, one of the plaintiffs, was head of the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing before he was terminated for his association with Kappa Gamma last year. The Boston Globe reported that a letter from the union for commission employees said Florio admitted to “dressing as a Nazi,” wearing the robes and performing the salute when he was a member in the early 1990s. Though Florio said at the time that he disavows his past association with the fraternity, he is now also suing the Massachusetts governor and other state officials for wrongful termination.

Gallaudet declined to comment. The Washington Post did not respond to a request for comment.

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