Those substantive debates are healthy and both sides raise plausible points.
It is salutary for collegians to contest such matters in the student newspaper, on campus, and on social media. Evidently, public discourse has changed some minds. Said the frat, “we sincerely apologize for the offense and hurt we caused to our fellow Bruins, especially those in the African American community ... We are grateful for the dialogue we have had so far, and we intend to continue communicating with our fellow Bruins about how SigEp and Alpha Phi can make this a learning opportunity.”
What’s unhealthy is the movement to suppress free speech at UCLA.
University administrators bear the most culpability. After hearing objections to the theme party, but before finishing an investigation into it, UCLA officials suspended the social activities of the fraternity and sorority, effectively punishing them without due process even as these same officials publicly acknowledged that they didn’t have all the facts. Moreover, university officials are abusing their authority merely by investigating protected speech in the first place. And the student newspaper is cheering them on, demanding in an editorial that the office of UCLA Fraternity and Sorority Relations take a more active role in preemptively clearing all party themes.
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, one of America’s foremost First Amendment scholars, has published several Washington Post items explaining why these reactions are legally dubious. “The suspension of the fraternity and sorority is likely unconstitutional,” he wrote. “Costumes that convey a message are treated as speech for First Amendment purposes (see, e.g., Schacht v. United States (1970) and Cohen v. California (1971)). And a university may not punish speech based on its allegedly racist content; see, e.g., Rosenberger v. Rector (1995), which holds that a university may not discriminate against student speech based on its viewpoint.”
He adds that “interim speech restrictions imposed before a full investigation and adjudication have historically been seen as more constitutionally suspect (as so-called ‘prior restraints’), see, e.g., Vance v. Universal Amusement, Inc. (1980); and the prior restraint doctrine is applicable to restrictions imposed by universities, see Healy v. James (1972). But in any event, even setting aside the prior restraint doctrine, suspending an organization’s social activities because of the offensive message conveyed by the organization’s past speech violates the First Amendment.”
In a followup post, he notes that the Supreme Court has unanimously held that student organizations have the right to express “the thought that we hate,” a far more offensive message than anything conveyed by the Greek organizations at UCLA:
In that case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2010), the Court held that universities may require student organizations that get university-provided benefits to accept all would-be members — including ones whose beliefs are at odds with the organization’s principles (e.g., if an atheist wants to join the Christian student group, or vice versa). I think that was correct, for reasons I gave in this article. (The article was published several years before the Christian Legal Society decision, so it doesn’t cite that decision.) But the result is certainly controversial: The majority consisted just of five Justices, the four liberals plus Justice Kennedy; the four other conservatives dissented.
Yet even the majority made clear that, while reasonable and viewpoint-neutral restrictions on student group membership policies are constitutional, viewpoint-based restrictions on student group speech are unconstitutional:
Although registered student groups must conform their conduct to the Law School’s regulation by dropping access barriers, they may express any viewpoint they wish — including a discriminatory one. Today’s decision thus continues this Court’s tradition of “protect[ing] the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.'”
So if a group wants to express hostility to homosexuality—or hostility based on race, or sex, or religion, or what have you—it has the right to do that. And that’s so even if the group seeks access (on the same terms as other groups) to generally available university property, services, and subsidies. And on this point, the Court was unanimous: The liberal Justices plus Justice Kennedy took this view; the other conservative Justices would have just taken this further, to secure student groups’ right to choose their members as well as their right to choose their speech.
On Monday, UCLA student Caterina Kachadoorian argued in a Daily Bruin op-ed that, as an Armenian, she wasn’t offended by the Kim Kardashian costumes, and that student activists at UCLA would do better to focus on black-on-black violence (a position that I find wrongheaded). Says a censorious comment beneath that article:
I have sent Caterina Kachadoorian's letter to the Office of Internal Affairs. I have demanded an investigation into the Daily Bruin to determine how this hate speech was published. I have requested an internal investigation and firing of the staff member that allowed this hate and discrimination to be published.
This student impulse to demand that authority figures punish other students who say or do things that they don’t like could not come at a more inopportune time. As Glenn Greenwald wrote in a recent article at The Intercept, “One of the most dangerous threats to campus free speech has been emerging at the highest levels of the University of California system, the sprawling collection of 10 campuses that includes UCLA and UC Berkeley. The university’s governing Board of Regents, with the support of University President Janet Napolitano and egged on by the state’s legislature, has been attempting to adopt new speech codes that—in the name of combating ‘anti-Semitism’—would formally ban various forms of Israel criticism.”