This letter reflects the opinions of Mitchell Cairns, a philosophy senior. Letters to the editor do not reflect the opinion or editorial coverage of Mustang News.
Cal Poly is currently making headlines nationwide. This isn’t for some major academic achievement, or for some underdog athletic championship. Instead, it is due to the allegedly racist choices made by students who are members of the fraternity Lambda Chi Alpha. This weekend, various photos of the members in what appear to be gangsta outfits, including bandanas, wife beaters, and gang tattoos (including teardrop tattoos) surfaced online. However, the most appalling photo was that of a student with his face painted black. The fraternity tried to do damage control, saying that it was a brotherhood sporting event and that each team had a color, but when the additional photos surfaced, this was clearly not the case.
Now, the university has the issue of determining what actions to take against the fraternity and its members. Students are demanding that the university not take this lightly, with a packed town hall Monday night and many posts about the incident on social media. However, while some students call for hellfire, I believe that it’s necessary to remind ourselves of our protections granted by the United States Constitution. Cal Poly is a public university and, thus, is required to follow state and federal law relating to students’ rights to protected speech. The ability to be completely protected in our speech is a wonderful thing, allowing journalists, academics and the general public to not be prosecuted when they present unpopular facts and opinions. Racist, sexist and homophobic speech are all still protected, as making speech illegal would require force and violence against those whose speech we disagree with; it is well established that there is no speech so morally dubious that force and violence against those who speak it is justified.
Earlier this year, the University of Alabama expelled a student for posting a video on Instagram in which she repeatedly said the n-word. Regardless of the content of her speech, this was a violation of the protections that the First Amendment grant her and it is likely that the school will find itself in a lawsuit in the future due to its decisions. We must insist that our university not follow in the same steps as the University of Alabama. The students from Lambda Chi Alpha will be subject to the social consequences of their actions. Nobody at Cal Poly will forget what happened this weekend. The students will forever be socially disgraced, and the countless news articles about the event will forever be tied to these students’ names. As members of the community, we should take this as an opportunity to educate these students on how their actions are morally wrong, and if we find ourselves failing in that pursuit, forever ostracize them from our community. However, we cannot let our university expel students for their protected speech. Their rights must precede our anger.
And as morally putrid their actions are, I ask all students to contact the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education if our university chooses to ignore these students’ rights. Remember what Martin Niemöller wrote in his poem, “First they came…” One day, there will be nobody to speak for you.
*This letter has been edited for clarity.