University of Oklahoma President David Boren said the fraternity students who chanted a racist slogan during a college outing went beyond free speech, creating a “threatening and hostile environment” that violated other students’ rights.
Boren made the remarks Friday at a press conference where he announced the findings of a university investigation into a recent fraternity incident. During a bus ride, students with the OU chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) were videotaped while chanting a racist slogan.
Boren said the chant violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, creating a “hostile learning environment” during the outing that required the university to expel two students and force the chapter to leave campus.
“There is no doubt in this case it was (creating a hostile environment),” Boren said. “Then you have a right to act. This was speech spilling over into action, in a way, I think, that to me we had no choice.”
His decision was swift, Boren said.
“We snuffed it out right then,” Boren said. “It took me exactly two minutes to decide what to do, about closing that house and finding those responsible. I think that’s what we got to have.”
Several free speech activists in the state have decried Boren’s decision to expel the two Texas students pictured in the video as leading the chant, Parker Rice and Levi Pettit, both of Dallas.
Joey Senat, a journalism professor and media law expert at Oklahoma State University, told the Los Angeles Times that the expulsions violated the students’ rights.
“The irony here is that (Boren is) arguing he’s protecting the rights of some students while infringing on the First Amendment rights of other students,” Senat said. “The speech is offensive, the speech is abhorrent, but the First Amendment protects unpopular speech.”
At the news conference, Boren expressed no doubts about the university’s actions.
“I’m sick and tired of us studying everything to death across this,” Boren said. “Why don’t we call it what it is? it’s wrong. Stop it. Don’t study it to death. Don’t worry about being taken to court. Stop it. And that’s what we tried to do.”
Boren said the investigation uncovered that the chant was learned by SAE students during a cruise sponsored by the national chapter, and was incorporated into the fraternity’s culture. He said he doubted the organization or the expelled students would be allowed to return.
Rice and Pettit have made apologies for leading the chant.
Boren said more than 160 interviews were conducted by the office of student affairs, and that about 25 additional students have been disciplined. He said the penalties ranged from apologies to community service.
For more on this story, read Oklahoma Watch’s previous coverage.