Free speech trumps ignorant party

Ian Billings/Mustang News

Eric Stubben

Eric Stubben is a mechanical engineering sophomore and Mustang News conservative columnist. These views do not necessarily reflect the opinion or editorial coverage of Mustang News.

Eighteenth century French writer, Voltaire, once wrote, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to death your right to say it.” Ironically, he also had a not-so striking revelation: “Common sense is not so common.”

I’m not sure I can find any two quotes to better summarize the events of last weekend’s “Colonial Bros and Nava-hos” party. Although the party’s theme is quite creative, it clearly wasn’t thought out. Any public party theme that mixes a derogatory, slang word for women with a race or ethnicity is certain to cause a stir.

What concerns me isn’t the party itself, but Cal Poly’s administrative response to the party.

First of all, realize this is only a fraternity party. I guarantee this isn’t the first frat party that uses the word “hoe” or other degrading terms. Thrusting the theme of a fraternity party into the spotlight of the entire university is an irresponsible, shoot-from-the hip reaction. Our administration is bringing an issue to the forefront that can have no form of punishment.

The United States Constitution protects freedom of speech in the First Amendment. Referenced in a Mustang News article last week, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on university harassment sets a high level of offense before words exceed free speech and are labeled “harassment.” Words or actions must be “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from victims’ educational experience, and the victims are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”

The party clearly did not overstep any of the Supreme Court’s outlined boundaries. It’s rare that a party actually affects one’s educational experience, and this one certainly did not. The most important thing in defense of the party’s theme is that while it may have offended and frustrated some, it did not forcefully restrict access to any of Cal Poly’s resources or opportunities. Women, minorities or others offended by the party’s theme did not have to attend.

Cal Poly’s United Sorority and Fraternity Council (USFC) bylaws state that the purpose of the council is to, “ensure a pleasant social atmosphere,” and “foster cultural awareness both on and off campus.” While the party most likely did not foster cultural awareness, the wording of the bylaws is vague and no punishments are defined.

If Cal Poly truly wants to pursue a punishment against the party’s host, the school may be in danger of escalating the current issue into national headlines. Racism, oppression and bigotry will reflect upon Cal Poly on a national stage. While these are the ideals our administration feels it must subdue, they are exactly the ideals that are gaining media attention and attaching themselves to Cal Poly.

Although our administration set up a forum to discuss the issue, it seemed like nothing more than a waste of time. More than 100 people gathered in Chumash Auditorium to beat the terms “racism” and “tolerance” to death. Some even went as far as to say they felt uncomfortable on campus and generalized Cal Poly as a racist and oppressive school. Another student stretched Native American relations into a comparison with the Holocaust. These generalizations are far more insulting to students at Cal Poly than a poor play on words at a fraternity party.

Not one student stood up and defended the party’s First Amendment right at the forum. Why? I presume the overwhelming number of pro-punishment supporters at the forum created such a blatantly one-sided atmosphere that it would’ve been hard to hear one voice from pro-First Amendment activists.

This whole issue is jeopardizing race relations and the future of diversity at Cal Poly. President Armstrong stated in his agenda at the beginning of the year that improving diversity on campus is one of his main goals. By magnifying such an issue into the spotlight, President Armstrong and his staff are severely hindering the success of this goal. With our administration’s overreaction to the party, any punishment will be highly publicized and could be highly unconstitutional.

When all is said and done, the students of Cal Poly need clarity on the issue. What is the greater concern? Is it the racial play on words, the degradation of women, or the lack of diversity at Cal Poly? None of these will be solved quickly, let alone through a forum. What we need to know is if Cal Poly is willing to respect our freedom of speech.

While racial tensions and degradation of women are problems that still exist in modern society, a breach of our constitutional right to freedom of speech is significant. Cal Poly’s administration does not have to agree with everything said on campus, but they must respect our right to say it.

  • Adam

    Like many people horrified to realize that they’ve done something racist, this columnist conflates the idea of “free speech”–usually the reflexive defense of people who failed to think through their words or actions–with the fantasy of speech without consequences.

    Denigrating Native people, Native women and women in general is unacceptable in any community, much less one public money goes to support. Cal Poly should reconsider whether to continue supporting any fraternity or sorority with campus resources.

    • Davidson Freeman

      Cal Poly does not have the Constitutional ability to allocate resources in that fashion, nor do you want it to…that would be promoting the behavior of tyranny. The fact that the school is run with public funds means it has a Constitutional obligation to protect free speech, not suppress it.

      You are right that free speech has consequences. Those consequences can come from the community, not the institution of Cal Poly.

      And who was denigrating Native American people? If you think that this party teaches COLLEGE-AGED ADULTS that all Native American women are hoes, because this party combined the two words, then you must think your peers on campus are incompetent.

      People complaining about this need to move on and get a life.

      • Adam

        I think you might be mistaken about Cal Poly’s constitutional abilities. Schools have no obligation to maintain greek life.

        The school can certainly enforce its own policies and any agreements it has with fraternities, which are consequences. Investigations themselves are not consequences, however–though I understand how a fraternity so cowardly as not to own up to its actions here would feel that way.

        The party organizers obviously felt it was OK for Native women to be termed as hoes. That is denigrating to both Natives and women. Having watched several Native women say as much at the forum on Friday is proof enough for me.

        • Jon

          Unfortunately, we live in a free society where having one sensibilities offending is insufficient reason for authority to step in. Study up on the theory behind our government, you may learn a thing or two. And yes, as a government institution, the university must recognize the constitutional rights of every individual that walks on campus.

  • Jack

    What are you smoking? Were you raised by wolves or just my racist uncle? I’m embarrassed that you invoke the bill of rights in your response to this issue. I think in the spirit of those rights the forum was an excellent response to the bigger issue -to make our university more receptive to the voices of those who feel out of place with the lack of diversity which is usually a given in more populated cities. Instead you call it a waste of time and described it as a gathering to “beat the terms “racism” and “tolerance” to death. Some even went as far as to say they felt uncomfortable on campus and generalized Cal Poly as a racist and oppressive school”. Wow…have you no empathy? I think their speech…is something worth listening to.

  • Ian

    Finally, some reasonable point of views by Adam and Jack. Let’s poke a hole in the Cal Poly, white, upper middle class bubble, with some bigger sense of why every student should support those that are using this example to bring light to why some groups still feel unwelcomed in our community.

    Sure if you are white, and think african american, asian, native american jokes are no big deal, you may have grown up in a family who thought it was hilarious making fun of other cultures. But as students in 2013, is it really hilarious to perpetuate these stereotypes and celebrate them in party mode? Free speech, maybe, but the goal for the university for students to leave with a moral compass-The Mustang Way, is a better focus. Most of the students comments seem to support the point that it is par for the course, something they are used to. Do a little google search, turn on the TV, fire up YouTube, seems being tasteless is the American way. Go to another country toting the right to make fun of differences in their culture. All proud first amendment moments.

    I suppose if you want to profess a right to free speech to hold a party based on making fun of other cultures–you can stand behind the right for Cal Poly students to speak freely like idiots. That’s not the national attention I think Cal Poly should have. I’d rather see this as an opportunity to open some eyes a little wider to simply acknowledge that you can have a party without offending other cultures. Then take the thoughts from the forum and move forward with a better understanding of why this is an issue.

    To publish comments like the forum was a “pity party” or to say “some went as far to
    say they felt uncomfortable on campus” or say the president is doing more harm by giving others a right speak their mind, does even more harm to Cal Poly’s diversity goals, sense of respect for others issues, and that brings the spotlight on exactly why this is more that a silly theme party mistake.

    • http://www.hoffmanity.com/ Mike Hoffman

      oh my…

  • http://cpgreekbeat.wordpress.com/ Cal Poly GreekBeat

    UPDATE: Want to read student reaction to how homogeneous the Greek community is on campus? Read more at Cal Poly’s source for Greek News:
    http://wp.me/p3Xb4I-1H

  • http://cpgreekbeat.wordpress.com/ Cal Poly GreekBeat

    Questioning the Greek community? Get your answers here at Cal Poly’s source for Greek news. http://wp.me/p3Xb4I-4d

Show