LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:
We're going to take a look now at a problem that has marred campus life for some time - racist incidents and sexual harassment involving fraternities. California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo has been racked by allegations of this kind of behavior. The state's attorney general's office is now investigating photos of white students in blackface that spread on social media. Cal Poly's administration has temporarily suspended all Greek organizations.
Matthew Hughey, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, sees the roots of such behavior in the very origins of fraternity life.
MATTHEW HUGHEY: We have the American higher educational system, which was designed to educate white, male, propertied, elite students. As more and more students started to come into university, and university started to become a little less elite, Greek letter organizations were formed. And they were formed as a way for those very elite, propertied, white, male students to create even more exclusionary spaces within college and university life. So they became vehicles, in a way, for the reproduction of inequality. It was very much working in elite interest. That's what it was designed to do. That's how it functioned.
SINGH: Leilani Hemmings Pallay also believes a predominantly white, affluent student body and administration have historically enabled inappropriate behavior. She's a sophomore majoring in ethnic studies at Cal Poly and says that, as a student of color, she's felt unwelcome and isolated since she got to campus. She's a student activist who helped organize protests against blackface and other racially charged incidents involving members of Lambda Chi Alpha and Sigma Nu fraternities. Hemmings proudly says she's experienced hostility from members because of her activism.
LEILANI HEMMINGS PALLAY: Students that are in fraternities and things like that often will wear their letters and wear them very proudly. And when they do come to these protests and are jeering at us and saying, oh, well, why are you protesting? It is definitely still a problem within Greek life that they are oftentimes white students, particularly white students from wealthy backgrounds, that give push-back when people are trying to make the campus a community for people other than white, rich folks.
SINGH: Was there a moment when you felt really threatened on campus?
HEMMINGS: There was - a protest that was going on regarding the blackface incident. And I had a megaphone because I was one of the organizers for it, and I had a student walk up to me. He's a tall, white male that walked up to me and yelled the n-word in my face and then continued walking as if nothing had happened.
SINGH: Were you surprised when that happened? Were you shocked the moment that it happened?
HEMMINGS: I was. I mean, I know that a lot of the work that I do here on campus puts a target on me. But, generally speaking, they'll put flyers up that are very racist or very misogynistic or homophobic. And they'll do it at night, or they'll do it when no one is there. And so having someone run up to me and say that to me - I was not necessarily surprised, but I was shocked that it happened then and that this person had the audacity to say that.
SINGH: But what would you say, Leilani, to those who argue that however offensive, however vulgar the language, that they have a right to express themselves? It's a matter of free speech. What's your reaction to that argument?
HEMMINGS: In a lot of these conversations with free speech, I feel like it's coming from a place that ignores the implications of hate speech coming from someone with a privileged identity, you know. And so in these free speech arguments, I think we really have to problematize one, who and what for the First Amendment and things like that were written for, you know.
And when you used your free speech - which, OK, fine. If it's - it is a right then, and you want to use it freely, then you have to understand that there are systems and institutions in place that will allow people who are in a privileged group to use their free speech and to go off without any punishment while the person that's the target of their hate speech is going to have to deal with all of the trauma that comes from that on their own personal level but also with all of the history that that brings up. So I'm very hesitant to really just let people get off without any consequences when they use their free speech to be violent against people.
SINGH: That's Leilani Hemmings Pallay, a sophomore at Cal Poly. When we reached out to Cal Poly for comment, they told us diversity on campus and keeping students safe are priority issues for them. Across the country in the state of New York, we turn to Syracuse University, this host's alma mater, which is accused of being too harsh on fraternity members. A group of Theta Tau pledges were seen on tape making explosive remarks about blacks, Jews, Latinos, women, gays and people with developmental disabilities. The video also contains the depiction of a sexual assault. The pledges were apparently staging sketches in a vulgarity-laden roast at a party.
Video of the whole thing went viral. It spawned angry demonstrations. Syracuse University has now expelled Theta Tau. It says, such behavior has no place in the Syracuse University community. The administration is considering how severely to punish those students who were involved. That could mean suspension or expulsion on the grounds of violating the university's sexual harassment and discrimination policy.
Law professor Greg Germain is advising some of the students who now face disciplinary action. He argues that university administrators are denying them due process.
GREG GERMAIN: They've got this one sentence that constitutes the basis for their claim, and it says, this complaint arises from events on March 30, 2018 at the Theta Tau fraternity house, wherein it is alleged that you participated in the creation, direction, depiction, filming or dissemination of a production depicting sexually explicit activity demeaning to women, physically and developmentally disabled and racial and ethnic groups. That's all it says.
Now, think about what that means. That means anybody participating in a play that depicts - that does not actually contain - sexually explicit activity demeaning to anyone else would be guilty of violating the code of student conduct. I can't imagine a broader statement of a violation of basic free speech principles than that.
SINGH: Professor Germain explains why.
GERMAIN: The students were doing a roast. The idea of the roast was that they had a conservative member of the fraternity who was being roasted, and they portrayed him as a - you know, an extreme, right-wing racist. And so that was the idea of this skit. It wasn't they were expressing their own racist views. They were critiquing racist views.
SINGH: If a university's intent is to provide a safe environment for all students equally, should a university have the right to say, we don't want this type of student here who engages in this kind of behavior that historically has been seen as a means of keeping minority groups down, of controlling minority groups, of disparaging minority groups?
GERMAIN: So the answer to your question is, if it was a public school, they could not do it because of the First Amendment. If it's a private school like Syracuse University, they could do it. But that's not what Syracuse University has done. Syracuse University has said, 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. Under our code of student conduct, if there was no intent to harm the other person, it doesn't constitute a violation. It's free speech.
SINGH: That's Greg Germain, law professor at Syracuse University. We reached out to Syracuse University for a response to Professor Germain, but we did not hear back in time for this broadcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.