Five of the fifteen students who were suspended from Syracuse University for up to two years after they appeared in an "extremely racist" and "offensive" video have turned around to sue the university, claiming that the videos were private and taken out of context. A free-speech advocacy group, FIRE, is supporting the Theta Tau fraternity members against the "kitchen-sink" discipline.
The two videos that were published in April show members of Syracuse University's Theta Tau engineering fraternity using racial slurs, mocking people with physical and intellectual disabilities, and simulating sex acts. Upon review, it was determined that the students' behavior was "offensive" and "they include words and behaviors that are extremely racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist, and hostile to people with disabilities." In response, the fraternity apologized: 'Anyone of color or of any marginalized group who has seen this video has every right to be angry and upset with the despicable contents of that video." The skit was allegedly part of a skit to "roast an active brother, who is a conservative Republican."
"The new members roasted him by playing the part of a racist conservative character. It was a satirical sketch of an uneducated, racist, homophobic, misogynist, sexist, ableist and intolerant person," according to the fraternity. "The young man playing the part of this character nor the young man being roasted do not hold any of the horrible views espoused as a part of that sketch." While they stated they were not trying to make excuses for the content, they wanted to explain the context around the video.
Since then, five members have pursued legal action against the university and are being backed by the Foundation for Individual Rights In Education (FIRE). According to the free-speech advocacy group, the decision to suspend the members for up to two years was a "flagrant violation" of Syracuse's promise of freedom of expression for students. It was "particularly egregious," for the university to ignore the context of the videos as satire in a private setting, according to Ari Cohn, one of FIRE's directors. "This was completely private expression…This was intended to be seen and heard only by people in the fraternity, none of whom were particularly upset by it...to hold the fraternity members responsible for private expression amongst themselves that happened to be learned of later by an outside party...is just unfathomable."
While Syracuse is private and "private institutions are not directly bound by the First Amendment," Cohn argues that it still "betrayed the students' rights to freedom of expression." In your opinion, should the students have been punished for their video? Why or why not?
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