PHOENIX - Just as social media played a big role in spreading images of partygoers at a controversial Arizona State University fraternity event
on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, Twitter and Facebook have buzzed
with debate over whether their behavior was racist and if it was free
Many condemned the students' actions at the Tau Kappa
Epsilon fraternity party, which included partygoers wearing
stereotypical hip-hop clothes and posing with hollowed-out watermelon
cups, according to photos posted on the Internet.
As one person
wrote Wednesday on Twitter: "ASU should revoke acceptance - expel them -
for any students who thought it was ok to go to such a party." The post
ended with a hashtag that said: #sicktostomach.
university officials would be going too far if they expelled students
who went to the party, arguing that the behavior, although offensive,
still fell under the umbrella of the First Amendment.
Amendment experts have different views on whether the behavior was
protected under the Constitution."This is the United States of America,
not the United States of I have a right to never be offended," another
person posted on Facebook. "The students are protected by the right of
free speech." The post went on to say the students' behavior was
"stupid," but added, "It's their God given right to do it."
Constitution prohibits government entities, including state universities
such as ASU, from interfering with freedom of speech. But the U.S.
Supreme Court has upheld exceptions, including speech that would incite
reasonable people to immediate violence, harassment or threats or
All the facts aren't known, but the party incident
raises questions about the intent of the speech, said Dan Pochoda, legal
director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.
does appear it was a conscious attempt to degrade an entire race, and
anyone taking part in such action would know it increases the difficulty
of students of color to participate in the educational community," he
Pochoda said the ACLU has not been asked to get involved in the case.
officials put the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity on interim suspension
Monday after receiving reports that fraternity members hosted an
unregistered party on Sunday with racial overtones and underage
Local civil-rights leaders want the university to revoke the
fraternity's recognition, which means they couldn't recruit members or
hold meetings on campus.
They also want ASU to expel students who
went to the party and take steps to create a "more accepting
environment" at the university.
They threatened to boycott the
university's athletics and a fundraising campaign to rebuild Sun Devil
Stadium unless their demands are met.
ASU is investigating the fraternity for four possible violations of the student code of conduct:
-- Engaging in discriminatory activities.
-- Off-campus conduct that may present a risk or danger.
-- Violation of laws governing alcohol.
-- Violation of earlier disciplinary sanction.
the time of the party, the fraternity was on university probation for a
fight in November 2012, when police reports say fraternity members
confronted a rival fraternity member, an African-American, and beat him.
He suffered a broken jaw, a concussion and cuts.
Experts aren't certain whether the latest incident crossed a constitutional line.
Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute in
Washington, D.C., believes the Constitution protects the students' right
to dress in the manner they did as well as their offensive comments.
The Newseum is a nonprofit media education organization that includes the First Amendment Center.
he said the students may not be in the clear if they violated other
university rules such as underage consumption of alcohol.
fraternity also may have a contract with the university that outlined
expectations, which would be a separate issue from free speech.
with controversial themes pop up every year, according to a national
organization that tracks free-speech issues on campuses. Last year, the
Kappa Sigma Fraternity at Duke University in Durham, N.C., found itself
under scrutiny after hosting an Asian-themed party with conical hats and
geisha clothing. The national chapter suspended the fraternity.
Shibley, senior vice president for the Foundation for Individual Rights
in Education, said choosing a party theme is an expressive act,
intended to communicate a message and is therefore protected by the
"If they have broken other rules, students or
organizations may be punished for those infractions, but their
punishment cannot be based on or enhanced by the college's desire to
condemn a certain viewpoint," he said.
The Rev. Jarrett Maupin, a
local civil-rights advocate, said he is "deeply troubled" by
social-media posts that say the party behavior falls into the category
of free speech.
"You have a right in America to do a lot of
things, but it doesn't make it right," he said. "Are we now legitimizing
or giving permission to or endorsing racist behavior?"
national chapter of Tau Kappa Epsilon is investigating and sent a
representative to Arizona. In a statement issued Tuesday, spokesman Alex
Baker apologized for "any offensive actions that a few of our members
might have participated in" and added that the national fraternity does
not condone any actions that would be defined as racist, discriminatory
"Social events with 'party themes' that are defined
as such have no place in our fraternity's mission or purpose," Baker
said in the statement.
First Amendment experts say the party
incident is another cautionary tale for using social media wisely. Young
people often have a sense that posting something on Facebook or Twitter
isn't serious and doesn't count, the Newseum's Policinski said.
"I think we're finding out all over the place that's absolutely not the case," he said. "It's speech."