The Fine Line Between Free Speech and Inclusive Language

Earlier this year, a firestorm erupted between guardians of “free speech” and those who are trying to safeguard inclusive language. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

A handful of students from Syracuse fraternity “Theta Tau” held a private “roast” this past semester. They lambasted others who were not present, in a frolicking party that got recorded and posted on Facebook. Doubtless the words were crude, obscene and inappropriate for the public. In fact, I would say unbecoming of fraternity members.

However, the gathering was private and never intended to go public.

When the word got out about the “roast,” administrators at Syracuse University pulled together a panel and leveled a penalty against the unruly students. According to an article from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education,  (FIRE), “The suspensions of up to two years were were handed down Tuesday, after a three-person panel tried the Theta Tau students as a group and found them guilty of violating university policies. The disciplinary proceeding was prompted by the unauthorized release of certain videos from the private roast on April 18. Stripped of their satirical context, the videos were described as sexist and racist — despite the fact the pledges punished were racially diverse — and provoked calls for the university to impose discipline, even though nobody actually present at the event filed a complaint.”

Those who came to the defense of the students say that Syracuse University should either stop saying they believe in “free speech” and “support the first amendment.” They believe you can’t have it both ways.

The article also shared a quote from Ari Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, “When a university expels students for a private roast consisting of completely protected speech, it has no business pretending that it cares about free expression.” In a letter to the Syracuse chancellor, Cohn demanded that Syracuse respect expressive rights and drop the investigation. He wrote, “Despite objections that these students were being tried as a group, by a biased committee, and ‘represented’ by an agent of the university, Syracuse has the gall to maintain that justice was served.”

This Begs the Question: What Is Most Important for Students?

Photo by Josh Shub-Seltzer | The Daily Orange Staff Photographer

Most of us agree that colleges should be places of free speech and an opportunity for adolescents to mature into adulthood. After all, that’s what it means to turn 18, right? Historically, colleges have been places for debate and challenging the status quo. Too many of them today have become bastions where students can continue to complain when anyone says something they disagree with, assuming they shouldn’t have to hear anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.

But—is Syracuse right in suspending these students?

While the students’ words were inappropriate, were their words worthy of suspension and silencing? Would it be better for students to learn to resolve this conflict themselves without adults stepping in to govern such private meetings? Where do we draw the line?  In fact, my questions are:

  • Although it was crude, do these students have a right to do what they did?
  • Was there any honor code that directs student behavior? If not, why not?
  • Does an adult-student’s right take priority over the school’s ambition to develop good citizens and good leaders?

My question for you is this: What is more important? Allowing students to begin to face such controversial conflict, learning to both handle it and resolve it, or to ensure proper behavior by policing such events. I could make an argument for both. Would you take a moment and comment?

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The Fine Line Between Free Speech and Inclusive Language