University of Memphis

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.

http://www.dailyhelmsman.com/news/students-accuse-fraternity-of-using-racial-slur-during-event/article_d571f5ee-2a15-11e8-b645-43fda9fc5a75.html

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. 

http://www.dailyhelmsman.com/news/students-host-silent-protest-after-racial-slur-incident/article_8a464ef2-2bab-11e8-a68c-2f4893e72539.html

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. 

http://www.dailyhelmsman.com/news/memphis-campus-community-talks-about-racial-issues-and-slurs/article_d723d90c-2bf5-11e8-bff7-738401cc9d2d.html

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.

2 Comments

  1. Woeser Dolma

    April 18, 2018 at 5:11 pm

    This post was very interesting to read because of your first-hand experience. First and foremost, I believe that no one should be able to use any racial slurs especially within songs and raps. It is incredibly ignorant, so I am proud of those who stood up quickly to fight back against the fraternity. It is also interesting how quickly the news spread on social media and on Daily Helmsman. Freedom of Press is especially interesting because without news and media quickly spreading, no one would have known about the incident that occurred. Despite the confidence individuals felt they had during the safe space, I do believe it was important to cover, so others will understand the severity of the situation.
    You also mentioned that the protests were non-violent, which can impact the swiftness of finding a solution. Additionally, non-violent protests with increased unity from several different civil society organizations can also play a large role in combatting the organizations movement to shut down the fraternity. Sadly, since the University of Memphis is a relatively large school, it is difficult to penalize a whole fraternity for the actions of one student. However, I do think there should have been consequences despite the first amendment.
    You also mentioned that the protests were non-violent, which can impact the swiftness of finding a solution. Additionally, non-violent protests with increased unity from several different civil society organizations can also play a large role in combatting the organizations movement to shut down the fraternity. Sadly, since the University of Memphis is a relatively large school, it is difficult to penalize a whole fraternity for the actions of one student. However, I do think there should have been consequences despite the first amendment.

  2. Ethan Watson

    April 28, 2018 at 12:48 am

    I will start out this post by saying that I believe in the first amendment wholly, but I will counter that with I hate racial slurs due to the ignorance that is portrayed while using them, and the horrific historical context surrounding the terms. I disagree that the fraternity should be removed from campus, in the weeks that followed the young man who said the slur was removed from his position (he was the president at the time of the indecent), and the fraternity as a whole if I am not mistaken (I could have misheard that last part). The actions of one should never speak for a group as a whole, and I heard from several Sig Eps in the days to follow that said they were very disappointed and frustrated with their brother. Sigma Phi Epsilon does a lot of good for the University as well as their philanthropy and service within the communities of Memphis. Should one word sang as a lyric to a very popular song be enough to shadow that? I think not and I believe the University agrees with me; they have punished with a probation (no parties for a certain amount of time) Sig Ep though which is completely fair I think. The day we don’t allow words to be said because of the offense that they may cause is a dark day for democracy: a system based on the population being free and able to speak their minds.

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