Racial slurs on campus: The first amendment and freedom of the press By : John Blake Stayton @ The University of Memphis
On March 16th 2018, I participated in a philanthropy hosted by a sorority on campus. The event was a lip sync and dance routine that was attended by over 900 members of the campus community. As I was back stage preparing to perform, I had no idea what was taking place on the stage. A member of a fraternity used a racial slur during his performance. I took the stage after this incident occurred. After my performance I was walking back to the University Center. I was stopped by everyone I passed and asked “Did you see what SigEp did?”. I was clueless. They explained that a member of the fraternity used a racial slur during his performance. Immediately what was supposed to be a happy night aimed at raising money for children’s literacy became tainted from this fraternity members actions.
After the performance I went to eat at a restaurant near campus with members of the greek community. I spoke with the president of a sorority and she told me that she believed the fraternity should be removed from campus immediately. That seemed to be the consensus amongst everyone I spoke to. Later that night I logged onto my Instagram account and saw that a silent protest was planned for the following Monday. I found the actions to be repulsive and distasteful, so I decided to exercise my right to protest. On Monday I entered the University Center and saw about 75 students holding up signs that read “It’s never okay” “It’s more than a word” and “You cannot say the N word”. I joined in, taking a place next to my fellow students. One of the organizers of the protest handed me a sign to hold. It was a cold and rainy day. News cameras were pointed at everyone participating. I was in a bit of a daze. All I could think about was the gravity of the situation and the power of the word used. A reporter asked me for an interview which I declined. I didn’t know what to say, I just knew I wanted to show support to the students who were hurt by the incident, It was clear to me that civil society at the University of Memphis is thriving. I was also surprised at the different civil society organizations ability to plan and execute a peaceful and well organized protest in a matter of days.
While the protest was good for shedding light on the incident and bringing it to the administrations attention, everyone wanted to know what action would be taken against the fraternity. That night in the Rose Theatre a campus conversation was held to address the issue. A dean at the university opened the conversation by assuring everyone it was off the record. It was made clear that this was a safe space where we could honestly share our thoughts, opinions, and hopefully solutions. The conversation was good for the community in some aspects, but left much to be desired as far as answers from the administration. That night I began looking up incidents similar to this one around the country. For some reason I was surprised to see that in many cases when racial slurs are used, nothing can be done. I was upset at the fact so many people got off the hook under the grounds of the first amendment. How could something as great as freedom of speech be used so carelessly?
However that was not the only abuse of the first amendment. When I got to campus on Tuesday, I saw an article in The Daily Helmsman with direct quotes from students who attended the campus conversation. I felt betrayed. I thought this was a safe space for students to exchange thoughts and ideas. I presumed it to be a judgment free zone in which students could come together to better the campus community. With that being said, The Daily Helmsman had every right under the first amendment to publish the story. They argued that it was important to cover the event and not hide the truth. I understand that they have the right to publish the story, but I found it unethical. I am extremely grateful that the press is not suppressed at the University of Memphis, but I believe The Helmsman betrayed the student body by publishing words that were supposed to be spoken in confidence that they wouldn’t be in the school newspaper the next day.
In conclusion, the incident that occurred on March 16th was terrible. I was encouraged by the actions of the civil societies on campus and the way they exercised their right to peacefully assemble and protest. I was also taught a valuable lesson about how the first amendment can be exploited to be something terrible.