2015 University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon racism incident
The University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon racism incident, known as "SAE-OU racist chant incident" occurred on March 7, 2015, when members of the University of Oklahoma (OU) chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) were filmed performing a racially insensitive song that used the word "nigger", referenced elements of Jim Crow such as lynching and racial segregation, and the denial of admission to people of color into the fraternity.
After a video of the incident was published, the SAE's OU chapter was closed and two of its members, Levi Pettit and Parker Rice (the latter of whom was the 'leader' of the chant in the video), were expelled.
Incidents recorded on video
On March 7, 2015, videos were recorded while fraternity members and their dates were riding on a chartered bus to an event celebrating the national organization's Founder's Day. In the video the students are heard singing a chant to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It". The chant begins with the refrain, "There will never be a nigger at SAE", which is followed by the lyrics, "You can hang them from a tree, but they'll never sign with me", followed again by the refrain.
An additional video emerged showing the fraternity's house mother, Beauton Gilbow, using the same word "nigger" while singing along to a rap song at the fraternity in 2013. Gilbow later stated that she was singing along at the time to rapper Trinidad James' song "All Gold Everything", which heavily uses the same racial pejorative, and apologized for any offense.
SAE chapter suspended
Two days later, OU Facilities Management removed the fraternity's Greek letters from the house. They later put a padlock on the facility's gate, blocked off the parking lot with barriers and caution tape and changed the locks.
At a March 18 press conference, the national SAE office apologized and vowed to promote diversity. The fraternity strongly denied that members had been taught the song, and stated they were investigating additional racist incidents. Elsewhere, the University of Texas said it was looking into claims the chant was used by SAE members there.
University of Oklahoma president David Boren expelled two students, Levi Pettit and Parker Rice, who he said "played a leadership role" in creating "a hostile learning environment for others." The action taken by the university was based on school's Student Rights & Responsibilities Code. In a letter to the students, Boren stated "As president of the University of Oklahoma acting in my official capacity, I have determined that you should be expelled from this university effective immediately," and "You will be expelled because of your leadership role in leading a racist and exclusionary chant which has created a hostile educational environment for others."
The LA Times reported that Boren appeared to be alluding to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bans racial discrimination at universities receiving federal money. However, the expulsions may have been a violation of the students' first amendment rights. First Amendment law specialist and UCLA Law professor Eugene Volokh asserted that President Boren's actions were unconstitutional. Oklahoma State University media law associate professor Joey Senat stated that the chant was offensive but is still protected free speech. Glenn Reynolds, a Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee, expressed the opinion that as a former U.S. senator, Boren should have known that the university was breaking the law in expelling the two students. A Washington Post article reported that a Sigma Chi Fraternity successfully challenged similar action taken against them by George Mason University in 1992.
On March 13, alumni on the board of OU's SAE chapter hired civil rights attorney Stephen Jones to look into the legal issues involving the chapter's suspension and eviction of members from its fraternity house at OU campus. The national office of SAE stated that it was not involved in retaining Mr. Jones and was unaware of his intentions, and that board officials with the OU local chapter had stopped communicating with them since the chapter was closed on March 9.
On March 25, Levi Pettit apologized publicly for his actions.
Robby Soave of the Reason Foundation wrote that the OU had failed to expel a freshman football player "caught on tape punching a female student in the face" in 2014. He concluded, "if anybody was going to be railroaded off campus without so much as a hearing, you would think it might be perpetrators of actual violence, rather than perpetrators of offensive speech (which is not actually a category of crime)."
Actor and Delta Tau Delta alum Will Ferrell said the incident might be an argument to end the entire college fraternity system. "The incident in Oklahoma, that is a real argument for getting rid of the system altogether, in my opinion, even having been through a fraternity," he told the New York Times.
Beginning in 2015, first year students and faculty have been required to take a five-hour course on diversity. Although several news outlets have connected the training to the chanting video, the course was announced in January, prior to the incident, in connection with a rumors of a "Cowboy and Indians" theme party being planned by a different fraternity.
Chapter house repurposed
On March 10, 2015, OU regained priority over the property. The former chapter house was leased to SAE by OU and was not SAE property. Instead, the chapter house had always been under the ownership of the University.
The outer wall of the building was vandalized with black spray paint on the day of the incident, and was promptly removed by the University.
At the beginning of the 2016 academic semester, the former SAE chapter house became the location for OU's University Community Center, which houses the Disability Resource Center (DRC) and the Student Veterans Association. The seizure of the fraternity house became an opportunity for the DRC to expand, since the center was previously a small wing at Goddard Health Center and had been searching for a location to expand to.
Within the Student Veterans Association's lounge, there is a small exhibit apart of the Henderson Scholars Program in the lower lobby of the former chapter house, to notable university alumni such as Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher who performed a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement in Oklahoma.
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- Volokh, Eugene (10 March 2015). "No, a public university may not expel students for racist speech". The Volokh Conspiracy. The Washington Post. Retrieved 10 March 2015.
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- Glenn Harlan Reynolds (2015-03-17). "OU broke the law to avoid bad press". USA Today. Retrieved 2015-03-20.
Boren's behavior was not only illegal — and clearly so — it was also a betrayal of the duty of fairness that he, as a university president, owes to every student enrolled in his university.
- Terrence McCoy (2015-03-11). "Why expelled Oklahoma frat boys would have an 'excellent chance' in court". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-03-17.
- Ohlheiser, Abby (13 March 2015). "Sigma Alpha Epsilon 'not ruling out a lawsuit' against Oklahoma University, says lawyer". Washington Post. Retrieved 13 March 2015.
- "Statement in Response to March 13 Stephen Jones Press Conference". SAE Media Statement. 2015-03-13. Retrieved 2015-03-13.
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- "Fraternity in Racist Video Has Roots in Antebellum South". The New York Times. 11 March 2015.
- Robby Soave, Oklahoma U. Expels Racist Students, But Not Violent Football Players, Reason Foundation, March 12, 2015
- Meg Wagner, ‘Morning Joe’ hosts blame racist Sigma Alpha Epsilon video on rap music, The New York Daily News, March 11, 2015
- Janet Allon (2015-03-12). "Jon Stewart Destroys 'Morning Joe' and Fox for Blaming Racism on Rap". AlterNet. Retrieved 2015-03-23.
How can those poor children know wrong from right, after being driven to madness by the irresistible power of the hippity-hoppity?
- Murphy, Mekado (March 17, 2015). "SXSW 2015: Will Ferrell Discusses Fraternities, 'Get Hard' and More". New York Times. Retrieved April 4, 2015.
- Bennett, Brittney (January 28, 2015). "Alleged "Cowboys and Indians" party prompts mandatory diversity trainings". OU Daily. Retrieved 16 June 2015.
- Crabtree, Trent (June 11, 2015). "U. of Oklahoma to instate mandatory diversity course". USA Today. Retrieved June 16, 2015.
- "Univ. of Oklahoma to require incoming students to take diversity class". WBAY.com. Associated Press. June 8, 2015. Archived from the original on 2015-06-09. Retrieved June 16, 2015.
- reporter, Mary Smith, news. "OU's former SAE house will hold a new center that promotes inclusion". OU Daily. Retrieved 2017-09-25.
- "Oklahoma Daily: Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house vandalized after chapter closure". NewsOK.com. 2015-03-09. Retrieved 2017-09-25.
- "Disability Resource Center". www.ou.edu. Retrieved 2017-09-25.
- reporter, Madison Albertson, news. "OU Student Veterans Association opens lounge in former SAE house". OU Daily. Retrieved 2017-09-25.