Free Speech on Campus: ODU Update

odu_fraternityby James A. Bacon

When students showed up for the start of school at Old Dominion University last weekend, they were greeted by banners hanging from a balcony at the off-campus Sigma Nu fraternity house:

“Rowdy and fun—hope your baby girl is ready for a good time.”
“Freshman daughter drop off.”
“Go ahead and drop mom off too…”

Suggestive? Certainly. Crude? Yeah. Offensive? To some. So abominable as to warrant a suspension of the fraternity? Sorry, I’m not buying it. The fact is, the banners were a pretty accurate reflection of the college experience — let’s drink, party and get naked. But in the new Puritanism of the Title IX war on “campus rape,” it’s not possible to actually express that sentiment publicly. Don’t get me wrong: I’m repelled by drunken college parties that lead to unfortunate sexual encounters, occasionally even to rape. Student culture is atrocious and needs to change. But I’m no fan of suppressing free speech either.

On Sunday, ODU President John Broderick disseminated a letter to the community, telling how offended he was by the message: “While we constantly educate students, faculty and staff about sexual assault and sexual harassment, this incident confirms our collective efforts are still failing to register with some.”

Broderick said he’d talked to “a young lady” who “courageously” described the “hurt” the signs had caused. “She thought seriously about going back home.”

Oh, poor, delicate flower! Back in the day, people would have responded to tasteless jokes by ignoring them, ostracizing the fraternity or perhaps organizing a demonstration. No longer. Now women swoon at the horror of a crude joke, and university administrations threaten punitive action. Said Broderick: “This incident will be reviewed immediately by those on campus empowered to do so. Any student found to have violated the code of conduct will be subject to disciplinary action.”

Well, we’ll see how the “review” goes, but I’m not expecting from the tone of Broderick’s letter that it will be an objective inquiry. Meanwhile, the national chapter of Sigma Nu has suspended the ODU fraternity — no doubt a pre-emptive move to contain the predictable outrage.

I’m wondering, will the suppression of Sigma Nu do anything to change the campus culture of drunken, indiscriminate sex that underlies the epidemic of regret sex and rape charges? Maybe there were be fewer incidents at ODU’s Sigma Nu while it’s closed, but nothing else will change.

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  1. NoVaShenandoah Avatar

    For better or worse, the fraternity exists because of the tolerance of the University. So can the University abolish it? YES!

    Suffering the consequences of crude speech is a very educational experience, as well.

    1. Two questions here:

      (1) Does ODU have the right to shut down, suspend or otherwise sanction Sigma Nu. Probably so.

      (2) What sanction should ODU bring against Sigma Nu for this offense?

      I’m thinking that a hand slap would be appropriate. But this is all over the national news now. I just saw it covered by MSNBC over my lunch break. Everyone will be watching.

    2. The university is a public institution. When the university acts it acts as a public institution. It must abide by the US Constitution which guarantees citizens relatively wide latitude in terms of free speech. The idea that a public institution can use its authority to stifle free speech doesn’t seem right to me.

  2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    This is some of the most repulsive speech I’ve seen. It’s plain crude & sophomoric. I would refuse to pay tuition if my son were a member of that fraternity. I’d expect him to resign quickly. I also see no problem with the national board suspending its local chapter.

    But there is case to be made that ODU is making free speech decisions based on content. Government regulation of speech must be content neutral. If I were Broderick I’d worry about a 1983 action against me for violation of federal civil rights under color of state law.

    The more repugnant the speech, the more it needs to be protected by the First Amendment.

    1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

      “The more repugnant the speech, the more it needs to be protected by the First Amendment.”

      This is fatuous nonsense that conflates repugnant and challenging speech. Moreover, you don’t actually mean it. If you did, you’d be writing your representatives every day to get the FCC to remove all content restrictions. I’m also sure you would react negatively to a 12th grader saying “A partial cause of WWII is that Germany was fucked over by the assholes who won WWI” in the middle of history class.

      1. I would congratulate the 12th grader on a rather astute comment. I would then insist that the 12th grader cease using such profane language since it upsets some people. I would not expel the 12th grader from the school.

        The university should have insisted that the signs be taken down. That might have been appropriate.

        I also wonder what would have happened if a sorority had hung signs that read, “Cute guys stop in here, cute Dads too.”. My bet? Nothing.

        1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

          ” I would then insist that the 12th grader cease using such profane language since it upsets some people.”

          Since a teacher has a position of authority in school you’re stifling this young person’s free speech here. Good to know we’re just haggling about price.

          “I would not expel the 12th grader from the school.”

          Cool story, bro. Good thing no one was expelled from ODU.

          “I also wonder what would have happened if a sorority had hung signs that read, ‘Cute guys stop in here, cute Dads too.’”

          Of course that’s not even close to equivalent to the banners Sigma Nu decided to unfurl. Beyond that, since sorority girls don’t have a history of sexually predatory behavior when it comes to naive teenage boys away from their support network in a new place and unfamiliar with their own alcohol tolerance the signs wouldn’t mean the same thing anyway. But who needs context when false equivalence is so much easier?

  3. There seems to be some confusion as to whether the signs were displayed on an actual frat house or a private residence in which some Sigma Nus lived.

    1. The house was described as “off campus.”

  4. Thanks to social media, ostracism is easier than ever, as this page demonstrates.

  5. The climate on campuses is fragile, mired in this mess. The chief distinction I see in this case, which makes 2 banners fall closer to being part of “rape culture” is that the messages speak with a power differential. Freshmen girls=naive girls. Baby girls=naive girls, girls we’ll be able to take advantage of with impunity.

    The 3rd one about Moms is something else.

    The implication would be quite different on a banner that says “We are typical horny 20 year-old boys who are looking for typical horny 20-year old girls who want to get drunk and have sex.” I’d find that completely honest and acceptable, and it would serve as fair notice to girls who are not candidates.

    This handful of ODU guys have only perpatuated the notion that there are issues of consent in campus sex.

  6. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    These two things can’t be true at the same time:

    “that underlies the epidemic of regret sex and rape charges”


    “Oh, poor, delicate flower!”

    Either college-aged women and girls are so emotionally fragile and immature they can’t differentiate between regrettable sex and rape (unless you no longer think that women are filing rape charges for regret sex) and need to be protected, including from themselves and their delicate emotions OR they’re emotionally capable of being exposed to tough/offensive ideas including the idea they had sex they regret but didn’t cross the line into coercive/non-consensual.

    And it was the national organization that suspended the fraternity not the university(and only during the probe into what happened), so there goes your freedom of speech complaint. But even if the university had suspended them, students who attend universities agree to university standards of behavior upon accepting admission, and if this behavior violated those guidelines then a suspension would be completely justified. Further, these fraternities exist on these campuses at the university’s discretion and can be dissolved likewise.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think it’s easy to figure out what it takes to crank up disgusting speech to a level where even the most ardent free speech supporter is going to flee.

    When I saw this blog post earlier – I was taken aback that Jim seem to be defending it…

    I would take one look at that as someone concerned about enrollment and see a disaster unfolding…

    We’ve had a problem down our way with social media “free speech” and I’m hearing folks say that the current laws don’t cover some of the dialogue coming from some folks towards others via social media.

    1. “I was taken aback that Jim seem to be defending it… ”

      I’m not defending the frat boy’s sophomoric humor — I’m defending their right to engage in sophomoric humor.

  8. Director Spike Lee on Condoleezza Rice: “If I got her a— on camera, I would put my Mars Air Jordans so far up her butt that the Mayo Clinic would have to remove them,” he says in the new King magazine.

    Where were the progressives demanding that King magazine retract or apologize for printing this call for violence against women? Where was the liberal media insisting that misogynist Spike Lee be banned from public comment?

    More troublesome, where was Don King when you need him to set up a cage match between Condi and Spike? My money would have been on Condi kicking his midget chicken**** ass from one side of the cage to the other.

    Liberals hate crude speech and want to see it censored. Unless, of couse, that cruse speech comes from the mouth of a fellow liberal. In that case it becomes Constitutionally protected “art”.

    Liberalism is a mental disorder.

    1. Liberalism isn’t a mental disorder. It’s a totalitarian instinct. It demands submission and conformity. (Otherwise, I agree with what you said!)

      1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

        “Liberalism isn’t a mental disorder. It’s a totalitarian instinct. It demands submission and conformity.”

        That is when it isn’t trying to bring about white genocide with its fiendish devotion to multiculturalism (how do you conform to a multitude?!), right? Or trying to gain legal recognition for LGBTQ* people (that’s a whole lot of different letters to try to conform to!)? Or standing up to police violence against the citizens of this country (a real submission-oriented stance, trying to get the bullet out of people’s backs like that)?

        But hey, keep lying to yourself if it make you feel better.

    2. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

      Hey, look! More apples and oranges comparisons!

      First, the media climate that existed during Rice’s tenure in national prominence (if you could find a date for that Spike Lee quote I’d be shocked if it was after 2007) is totally different from what exists now. The ubiquity of smartphones and the social platforms that they foster – Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. – allows marginalized people and their allies a far greater influence on mainstream media than previously existed. I’m sure in 2005 or whenever that quote was made, you could find LiveJournal and Blogger entries decrying Spike using violent imagery against a woman. It’s like asking why Rand Paul refuses to repudiate Ronald Reagan for raising taxes.

      Second, among people who actually do care about such things, Spike has long been criticized for his sexism and homophobia. If it previously hasn’t cracked into the mainstream it’s because the mainstream has made a habit of largely ignoring Black art, but ask most Black women of a certain age what they think of – say- “She Hate Me” and you’ll get a response for which you may find yourself unprepared.

      Liberals don’t give a shit about crude speech, as evidenced by any number of left-leaning comedians and punk rock bands. You’re the one who said you chide a 12th grader for making a salient point with an impious tongue, so I’m going to assume the point you’re trying to make here is just run of the mill projection.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    WTF – we’re now talking how Conservatives don’t engage in nasty speech?

    good lord!

    perhaps Jim will let me post some of it here from some Conservative leaning blogs..

    it gets pretty bad when some folks claim that Liberals “own” the nasty speech in the world…


  10. NoVaShenandoah Avatar

    Sorry all. Yes, there IS the right to speech. But there is also responsibility. If you cannot accept the consequences, keep quiet. On-campus or off-campus.

    There is a place for ‘ill manners’ as protest. ABSOLUTELY, that is what revolutions are about. That is indeed speech.

    But there is also ‘ill manners’ simply because too many parents are far too lazy to educate their offspring. These signs were not protest.

  11. “The fact is, the banners were a pretty accurate reflection of the college experience — let’s drink, party and get naked.”

    Maybe 30 years ago. But research like this,, suggests that’s not so much the case anymore.

    As much as I’m a proponent of free speech, I have zero problem with the national fraternity or the school suspending these knuckleheads. College is a privilege, not a right, and the school and fraternity have every right to protect their reputations. Their response was the right one. Free speech is important, but nothing trumps common sense.

  12. LarrytheG Avatar

    free speech – you ARE FREE to say what you want – but there ARE consequences .

    You can call your mother in law a butt-ugly hag… yes you can surely do that…

    you can call your boss a cow pie… yep

    you can tell officer friendly that he smell bad.. and looks worse – yessir

    but look .. stupid has real consequences…

    and who among us – has not said to himself at some point:

    “I wish I had not said that”.

    anyone who can say you never said that – you have my utmost respect!

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Agreed. Most of us, most especially me, has said many things that should not have been said and that we may regret saying many years later. And I cannot even plead “youth” for all of them.

      But there is a difference between generating negative consequences and having the government censor or punish speech. I don’t think I’d be wanting to hire a 2016 graduate of ODU who was a member of Sigma Nu. I wouldn’t want that person representing my business. But does the Freedom of Speech Clause mean what it says? Should the president of a taxpayer funded university censor speech? She/he can criticize the hell out of it. But the First Amendment gives a person the right to make a jackass out of him/herself.

  13. LarrytheG Avatar

    well.. I guess when you’re at work are in a connected with another entity like a School… a sports team… the military… a Church.. etc… there are “standards of conduct”.

    indeed at ODU:

    “C. Location of Violation: Because the Code is based on shared values, it sets a range of expectations for University students and student organizations no matter where or when their conduct may take place. Therefore, the Code will apply to behaviors that take place on
    University premises and at University-activities. The Code may also apply to conduct occurring off University premises when the Director, or designee, determines that the conduct affects a substantial University interest.

    A substantial University interest is any factor that adversely affects the University’s mission ………… ”

  14. I think it’s a shame when we say the indecent thing and defend that offense on grounds of freedom of speech — but it happens all the time. The cure for indecency is not to forbid the speech per se, but to leave the speaker unprotected from social disapproval. What disapproval would Sigma Nu have experienced if the ODU Admin had not got involved? Aren’t we in fact admitting that the typical ODU student doesn’t disapprove at all, when Admin has to take up the cause of the vocal minority?

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Acbar – well stated. The First Amendment was not designed to protect people from other’s negative reaction or adverse actions taken by private parties.

      I can also see a role for entities to have some standards of conduct and to enforce them evenhandedly and with appropriate due process. The media reports the reporter who gunned down his former colleagues was disciplined for being seen in a voting line wearing an Obama for President button. He was disciplined for this violation of company policy. The station has a policy of no political activity (helping candidates, donating money, displaying pro or anti candidate information).

      My big concern remains that government entities will take action based on the content of the speech.

  15. Inthemiddle Avatar

    Hanging rude signs is silly. Molesting women at alcohol-rich parties is not. The big question is whether the school will go after the real problem, or just chase after the symbols? Anybody taking bets that there will continue to be student parties with heavy drinking at which at least one female student is molested?

    1. NoVaShenandoah Avatar

      Good point. But you build Rome brick by brick, not by waiving a wand and getting a city ready made and populated.

      To be sure, drinking needs to be addressed, always with the aid of the parents of these persons, since they presumably instill them with their values.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      if the rude signs actually represent the practices … or culture..

      if a women subsequently claims to have been treated as the signs seem to invite…

      or if the rude signs result in the bottom falling out of female enrollment…

      much more than silly… becomes “evidence”.

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