15 Syracuse Students Suspended Over Fraternity Videos That Ignited Campus Protests
Posted June 11, 2018 8:24 p.m. EDT
Fifteen Syracuse University students who participated in fraternity videos described by the school’s chancellor as racist and anti-Semitic were suspended last week, according to their lawyer, the culmination of a six-week inquiry into the footage, which had ignited campus protests and a sit-in.
Karen G. Felter, whose law office represents the 15 students who received formal disciplinary decisions, said in an email Sunday that some of them were suspended for one year and others for two years.
The students are prohibited from any presence or activity on university property. Readmittance is not guaranteed and is at the discretion of Syracuse, she said.
But that is not what these “strait-laced engineering kids” deserve, said Gregory L. Germain, a law professor at the university who serves as a pro bono adviser to three of the students.
The decision was the result of an “unfair process that was dominated by the university,” he said, that “manipulated the rules to meet the facts.”
On Monday, Dara Royer, a Syracuse University spokeswoman, said in a statement that the university approached the case “fairly and professionally,” and that the fraternity videos had “a significant impact” on the well-being of students, faculty and staff on campus.
“The videos contain language, even if offered under the guise of satire, that is sexist, racist, ableist, anti-Semitic and demeaning to the LGTBQ community,” the statement said. “Moreover, speech or conduct can be harassing in nature based on its effect on others, even if that was not the underlying purpose or intent.”
In April, Syracuse University halted all the activities of the engineering fraternity, Theta Tau, soon after footage surfaced of members speaking and acting in ways described at the time by the university’s chancellor, Kent Syverud, as “extremely racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist and hostile to people with disabilities.”
The videos, which were recorded March 30, were originally posted to a secret Facebook group called “Tau of Theta Tau” and later obtained by Syracuse’s independent student newspaper, The Daily Orange. The paper published two of the videos after the university declined to release them, citing its continuing investigation.
One of the videos, which is about six minutes long, includes a pledge “to always have hatred in my heart” for African-Americans, Hispanics and Jews, all of whom are referred to with slurs. One member of the fraternity tells Jews to get in the shower, an apparent allusion to Nazi gas chambers. The video also shows members of the fraternity laughing while pretending to masturbate each other and perform oral sex.
In the second video, the students show someone sitting in a wheelchair who is described as being “retarded” and “brain dead from being chronically whipped.”
“I love my girlfriend,” says the student sitting in the wheelchair, drawing howls of laughter from the crowd. The other students onstage then pretend to sexually assault him.
According to Germain, one student who participated in the skit said it was based on disturbing jokes by YouTube personality Brandon Rogers. In another of the skits, Germain said, the students were roasting a conservative “Trump-supporting frat member.”
“They were making fun of him by pretending that he is a member of the alt-right that started a competing fraternity,” Germain said. “They had an anointment where the new pledges pledged to be racists.”
Germain acknowledged that the skits were in poor taste, but said that the fraternity members “were making satirical, anti-racist jokes,” not using slurs against fellow students.
After the footage emerged, 18 students were charged with violating the student code of conduct. The university quickly set the disciplinary process in motion, scheduling the students’ first hearing in early May. The charges included harassment and conduct that threatens the mental health, physical health or safety of others.
Robert Hradsky, the dean of students, announced Friday that the hearings and deliberations had concluded, saying “the students were notified of their respective outcomes and subsequent sanctions.” But he did not share further details about the decisions, citing federal privacy laws.
According to Felter, two of the students accepted penalties offered by the university before the formal hearing, and one accepted a resolution at the conclusion of the hearing. The remaining 15, who were suspended, now have the option of appealing the decision, a process that could take several weeks.
“We are waiting for the administrative process to end so we can pursue legal action on their behalf,” Felter said.
Four prospective Theta Tau members and one current chapter member are suing Syracuse University for injury to their reputation, according to a complaint filed in April. The students accuse the school of branding them as racist and anti-Semitic, among other labels used by the school’s chancellor, and “threatening their academic success and survival,” the court documents said.
Theta Tau has argued that the university’s actions were “drastic,” especially given that the skits were parodies, the organization wrote in an opinion article published in May on Syracuse.com.
“Did the involved members do stupid things? Of course,” the article said. “Are they racist, sexist, anti-gay criminals? Not even close, and indeed the context of the event shows just the opposite.”
Germain and others on campus have argued that the students’ right to free speech has been violated. But for many students at Syracuse, the videos — while distressing in and of themselves — are indicative of a larger problem.
“I wish I could say that this is behavior that is isolated to Greek life, but it’s not,” Rachel Ameen, a sophomore, told The Daily Orange in April. “This is an issue with the underlying bigotry that exists at this university.”