The Chant Heard ‘Round the Country

As everyone knows by now, members of the now defunct branch of the SAE fraternity at the University of Oklahoma were secretly videotaped chanting a horribly racist song while on a bus to a formal event. Members of the fraternity were seen raising their arms in the air to encourage participation in the song, which used the “n” word and made reference to lynchings. In shocking juxtaposition, the University of Oklahoma video was released on the same day that President Obama and the nation commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Selma and “Blood Sunday.”

The University of Oklahoma’s President David Boren wasted no time in responding to the video. In addition to the SAE fraternity being suspended from campus, two students involved with the incident have already been expelled. President Boren also stated that his administration is exploring whether legal action can be taken against individual students–particularly the “ringleaders.”


But taking legal action can be tricky. President Boren accused the members of SAE of abusing their free speech rights. At a campus rally the night of the video release, President Boren grabbed a bullhorn to address students and made the following statement: “I have a message for those who have misused their freedom of speech in this way. My message to them is this: you’re disgraceful. You have violated every principle that this university stands for.”

While we might agree with President Boren’s message and share his sentiment about the incident, taking legal action based on free speech–even speech as reprehensible as that in the video–is not easy. Although Title VI of the Civil Rights Act has been suggested as a possible basis for legal redress, it is this very law that not only guarantees freedom from discrimination, but also guarantees free speech.

The horrific act of terrorism perpetrated against the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris on January 7, 2015, was discussed in a previous blog as an attack on the basic right of freedom of speech. (See Charlie Hebdo And The Right To Free Speech). Even though many found the satiric images of the Prophet Muhammed printed by the magazine objectionable or even vile, people across political and religious spectrums nevertheless strongly defended the cartoonists’ right to publish them.

Speech that we disagree with, that is ugly, racist, or “disgraceful” in the words of University of Oklahoma President Boren is still protected speech. That was the lesson of Charlie Hebdo; that was the principle for which the cartoonists stood and died for rather than lived on their knees, in their words. However, when ugly or racist speech crosses the line into actions which interfere with others’ protected civil rights, such as the right to be free from discrimination, then legal action might succeed.


Sometimes the best action may not be legal action. Although President Boren has focused his ire at the so-called “ringleaders” in the video, one of the most shocking aspects of the video is the absence of any challenge to the ringleaders. No one on the bus stands up to stop the chant, or makes any attempt to stop the song. No one gets up to say what so many have said since, that such words have no place in decent society.

The campus group Unheard, which received the video anonymously and then released it, has been working with President Boren to address issues important to students of color on Oklahoma’s campus since the beginning of this year. The overwhelming support of the administration, student body, football team (which protested during practice), and the entire country means that they are Unheard no more.


If you believe your civil rights are being violated, contact the attorneys at Pak & McRae Law, LLC.

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Pak & McRae Law

At Pak and McRae Law, LLC we provide straightforward, sincere criminal defense for local, state, and federal matters. Our team includes a former Assistant District Attorney, so we understand how prosecutors approach cases and will use those insights to benefit your case.

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