ASU Frat's "MLK Black Party" Defended by Black Civil Rights Advocate
January 22, 2014
Michael M. Crow
Arizona State University
Office of the President
Mail Code 7705
P.O. Box 877705
Dear President Crow:
I have been following the controversy and demands from the local civil rights leaders there for university officials to take disciplinary action against the students who organized, attended, or otherwise participated in the ASU Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity's "MLK Black Party."
As we understand, from the press reports, college officials have already suspended the ASU Tau Kappa Epsilon chapter for its allegedly "racist" antics and for its take-off on so-called "black cultural stereotypes." As we further gather, from news reports, the students at the frat's "MLK Black Party" mocked black culture by, ahem, "acting black," "dressing black," "drinking from watermelon cups" and by some students having used at the frat party the "N" word (See The State Press, January 21, 2014). The various press reports also represent that university officials as having said that such insulting or offensive "conduct" is not only "inappropriate" but must be punished.
I also understand--from the quoting of your spokesperson--Ms. Julie Newberg--that the TKE frat party was held OFF CAMPUS, and that because of [this] incident, ASU has suspended chapter operations, and that the university "can and will take additional action against the individuals involved..."
If any of the above recitation of the facts or errant, please inform me directly and immediately. Assuming the press reports are correct, local civil rights activists are, in our considered judgment, wrong to demand disciplinary action--including and up to expulsion of the students who "insulted" Dr. King and who mocked so-called "black culture." Moreover, as I understand from your university's description of itself, ASU is a public university. As such it is obligated to uphold the constitutional rights of its students to free speech and association. It is--and you are--obligated to counter any blowback that would violate the free speech and association rights of your students, no matter that their speech has insulted or offended some or many on campus. As a the leader of an institution of higher education you also have an obligation to teach about constitutional guarantees, as well as to correct misstatements of facts and history. I, for one, truly doubt that Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. himself would have opined that the students who poked fun at-or "disrespected" the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday or who, for that matter, mocked so-called "black culture"--should be punished in any way. Dr. King as a civil rights advocate intrinsically knew the power and the underpinnings of the First Amendment--and of its value as a tool to advance social change and the education of the masses, and for its absolute preservation and necessity to rebut racial idiocy.
Censorship was not Dr. King's philosophy or his tactic. He believed in robust debate and as an intellectual he was not afraid of--and did not shrink from--confronting ideas that were at variance with his own beliefs or which he deemed morally bankrupt. He never, for instance, called for the banning of "hate speech." He was pilloried with much worse than vilification.
As a public institution of higher learning, ASU should also be in the business of upholding due process rights. This means that students of whatever skin color need to know--in advance--what behavior or "speech" is subject to your disciplinary code. In this connection, none of the press reports I have read--and none of the statements I have read from representatives of the university--have stated exactly or specifically how the students who either organized or attended or participated in the racial hi-jinks violated any community standard or code of conduct. Yet they have been threatened with suspension if not expulsion for merely attending or participating in free speech activities that others (non-members and maybe even some members of the frat) deem "inappropriate," "tasteless," or "racist." I ask that you let us know what is in your college's student handbook or code of conduct that would justify your university placing prior restraints on students' free speech and association rights at a public university--restraints on students' speech--as a matter of fact--that took place off campus.
On or off campus, is it your position that any student or group of students--be they be black or white--who engage in parody, mockery or who mimic and/or show disrespect for another group's culture or the stereotypes about that group are to be subjected to disciplinary action?
Is this your position if the "offensive" students were black and, not white, and who, say, had had a hillbilly or Duck Dynasty Party at which they poked fun at those cultural stereotypes? Would your stance in such circumstances be to say to the black students--"This is idiotic and foolish conduct and you must be punished for mocking white culture!"?--or would you take an educational approach--and urge civility and teach how such stereotyping demeans the human character and embarrasses the university that seeks to teach about individuality and that exists in order to help extirpate prejudices and stereotypes of all kinds? Would your higher education mission in such circumstances be advanced or set back through the university's resort to punishment as the "teaching" tool?
If there are "community standards" that racial parody or mockery violate, we'd like to review them. We think you would be hard pressed to defend much less impose such punishment for "offensive" speech, before or after the fact, for controversial speech--on or off campus, when the prohibition or punishment is put to First Amendment scrutiny. Everything I have read about the antics of the frat's MLK Black Party appear to us as protected First Amendment activity. I know of no hazing or violence involved with the frat party. So, please explain to us--and to the students--why their party was not entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment. As Robert Shibley of F.I.R.E. (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) explained to the DAILY CALLER:
"At public colleges, the First Amendment prohibits punishments based solely on the subjective offensiveness of student expression."
Shibley advised, rightly, that those who took offense at the frat's party should voice their concerns, rather than censor or punish the offenders. He added,
"Parties with controversial themes pop up on campuses every year. The right response to speech we don't like is more speech, not censorship or punishment."
What I don't understand is why you as a leader of a higher education institution--a public university that must respect and uphold the First Amendment rights of your students--have not yet said something akin to what FIRE's Robert Shibley has said about this matter. If you have--or if any of your spokespersons have done so--I would welcome your sharing with us your or their full statements.
As of now, I am concerned and disappointed with ASU's response to this "incident." We are especially disappointed with the statements from the local civil rights activists who have urged--through a demand on the university--that students be expelled for their having "dressed like blacks," "acted like blacks," and used the "N' word. As you well know, some black youths, including black students--whether they're mocking black culture or not--use the "N" word quite often. I have heard white and Hispanic youths employ the "N" word as well, jokingly, mockingly, and in everyday discourse and in situations that did not involve parody. The culture is forever changing--and there cannot be one standard of "offensiveness" for one racial or identity group and another standard for others when it comes to judging which words and what kind of speech are "inappropriate."
You might want to ask the local civil rights leaders there this question--"Haven't you ever heard of the First Amendment?" You might add, "This is a public university and we have obligations to respect the free speech rights of all our students. We will use our free speech to disassociate our university from such antics--but we cannot and will not suspend or expel students for expressive activities based solely on subjective standards of offensiveness."
Civil rights leaders ought to understand that the fundamentals of civil rights advocacy and equal protection principles are buttressed by our dedication and commitment to free speech. Censorship--attempts at banning words that invoke our outrage or that show others' ignorance as "inappropriate, as "racist," as "hate" speech--is always defeated as too subjective, too broad, and as too contemptuous of free speech rights.
Please feel free to circulate this letter to your university officials and college community. In the meantime, I await your response.
With best wishes, I am
cc: James Rund, Senior Vice President for Educational outreach and Student Services
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