University of Oklahoma SAE fraternity members apologize: Is it too late?

Two OU students, identified as the leaders in a video where members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity make racial chants, have been thrown out of school.

Sue Ogrocki/AP
University of Oklahoma junior Brooke Aston, right, adds her fingerprint to a sign to be carried to the now closed University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house during a rally.

After being expelled from the University of Oklahoma for racist speech, one member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity issued an apology while the parents of the second student did the same.

The video surfaced on Sunday after anonymous sources sent the video – which showed Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members chanting racial slurs and referencing lynching – to the school newspaper and a black activist group on campus. The fraternity was promptly closed down by the university and the members evicted after the video made national headlines and elicited protests.

In light of the visceral reactions and national disappointment in the students’ behavior, it raises the question of whether or not their apologies can undo some of the damage that has already been done.

Former OU student Parker Rice, who appeared to be leading the chant in the publicized video, apologized for his actions and said it was “a horrible mistake.”

"For me, this is a devastating lesson and I am seeking guidance on how I can learn from this and make sure it never happens again. My goal for the long-term is to be a man who has the heart and the courage to reject racism wherever I see or experience it in the future," Mr. Rice said in a statement, reported NBC News.

The other student was identified as Levi Pettit, son of Brody and Susan Pettit. In a statement, the parents apologized to “the entire African American community [and the] University of Oklahoma.”

“[Our son] made a horrible mistake and will live with the consequences forever ... He is a good boy, but what we saw in those videos is disgusting,” they said, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The national SAE office issued a statement condemning the behavior of the OU chapter, and stated that they will begin the proceedings to expel the currently suspended members from the national organization. They denounced the video, and stated such behavior or chants are neither taught nor accepted by the national organization.

“Our investigation has found very likely that the men learned the song from fellow chapter members, which reiterates why Sigma Alpha Epsilon did not hesitate to close the chapter completely because of the culture that may have been fostered in the group,” the statement reads.

University president David Boren expelled the two students Tuesday. In the expulsion letter, he stated the students were expelled “because of [their] leadership role in leading a racist and exclusionary chant which has created a hostile educational environment for others.”

While many support the decision to expel the students – including the national SAE organization – others argue that the decision is not constitutional. Eugene Volokh, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, argues that even if the speech is racist and offensive, the students are still protected under the First Amendment.

“[R]acist speech is constitutionally protected, just as is expression of other contemptible ideas; and universities may not discipline students based on their speech. That has been the unanimous view of courts that have considered campus speech codes and other campus speech restrictions,” Mr. Volokh writes in the Washington Post.

Volokh continues to say that socially, the students’ actions will have plenty of consequences, and how long they follow them into their lives is “an interesting ethical question.”

“[I]n any event it’s pretty clear that the offending students are going to pay a substantial social and likely economic price for their actions,” he writes. “Under the First Amendment, though, the government – including the University of Oklahoma – generally cannot add to this price, whether the offensive speech is racist, religiously bigoted, pro-revolutionary, or expressive of any other viewpoint, however repugnant it might be.”

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