Last Wednesday, two students at the University of Connecticut were arrested on charges of shouting racist slurs in a parking lot across a university dorm on their way home. FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, are saying these arrests are unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
“However offensive the use of a racial epithet, not directed at any person, the First Amendment protects offensive language, and neither the University of Connecticut not its police officers may abridge students’ First Amendment rights,” Adam Steinbaugh, FIRE director, wrote in a letter to the UConn President. Steinbaugh is demanding that the university drops its charges.
The two boys were playing a game of “penis” which is where you go back and forth saying penis louder and louder until someone gives up. After a while, they switch from saying penis to saying the N-word.
A student ended up recording them and reported the incident. The bots were arrested by university police on charges of violating Connecticut General Statute 53-57, which bans ridicule of creed, religion, color, denomination, nationality, or race.
One of the boys have apologized and admitted to what happened, while the other claims he was drunk and does not remember what was said.
I find this so incredibly frustrating, because obviously we all have a right to the First Amendment. That being said, to let these boys go with no punishment is unjust. It is sad that we have to deal with this in the first place. Why couldn’t they have just said penis?
I am hoping that even if the law can’t punish them, maybe their school will suspend or expel them. In my opinion, this isn’t even a matter of freedom of expression anymore. It is a freedom of oppression.
I understand that we must protect freedom of speech and that being able to say what we want is crucial in our country, but if our law cannot protect the people hurt by these words, what’s the point?
If people of different races, religions, and nationalities weren’t dying in our country because of extremists and terrorists shooting and bombing them, I might feel different. Racism is alive and thriving in our country. The crazies that see stories like these are inspired by them. This won’t end unless we somehow figure out a rightful way to stop those who abuse the First Amendment.
I think you hit the nail right on the head when you say it’s problematic to be having this conversation in the first place. Unfortunately, I don’t think this type of legal dispute is ever going to go away. These students’ use of the N word was unacceptable and uncalled for, but punishing someone for something they say sets a precedent of censorship. While we can tell the difference between disrespectful, intentional racial slurs and the use of fowl language in a productive, historical, educational way, it may be difficult to prove intent in a court of law. Still it’s unfortunate that we even have to talk about this. To quote your blog, why couldn’t they have just said penis?
I am concerned by your statement that the law should “protect the people hurt by these words.” Words can be offensive and they can be hurtful- but asserting that the type of harm they cause should be result in criminal charges is deeply concerning. I do not condone their language or behavior but neither do I feel they should be arrested. The proper punishment is the social consequences and public shaming that is the inevitable result of this. Additionally, University of Connecticut as a public institution does not have the same ability as private institutions to limit speech.
We must be careful about the remedies we seek. When the remedy we seek is censorship, we must be aware that this has long been the tool of tyrants.