University of Oklahoma fraternity members got death threats, attorney says

Attorney says SAE members have received death threats, warned OU may have violated their due process rights

The attorney hired by the University of Oklahoma fraternity at the center of a national firestorm over a racially charged video clip said members had received death threats in recent days, and he questioned whether the organization's free-speech rights had been violated by both the university and the fraternity's national body.

Stephen Jones, the high-powered attorney who once represented Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, said Friday that he had been retained by the Oklahoma chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity to handle legal issues involving the chapter's suspension and eviction from its fraternity house.

At the outset of the half-hour news conference, Jones said the actions of the students caught on video were indefensible.

“All of us agree that the actions which led to this matter at the University of Oklahoma are inexcusable," he said. "Let me be clear. There is no justification for what occurred. Zero.”

In the video, which became public early Monday, young men wearing formal attire and gathered on a bus with dates are shown dancing and singing a song rife with racial epithets and references to lynching.

Crooning to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It," the students boldly claim, using the N-word, that "there will never be a ... SAE." 

The video, which was leaked to the campus newspaper and a black activist group at the university, quickly spread across social media. As demonstrators began to swarm the Norman, Okla., campus, university President David Boren reacted swiftly. 

The fraternity's campus residence was closed within hours, and SAE's national governing body closed the chapter and suspended all members from the larger organization. Two students described as having a leading role in the incident, Parker Rice and Levi Pettit, were expelled from the university the next day.

While Jones does not represent Rice or Pettit, he said Friday that the students elected to withdraw from the university and were not expelled.

Corbin Wallace, a spokesman for Boren, said the university is "continuing its investigation into the recent events relating to SAE" and declined to comment on Jones' remarks.

Jones also cautioned that the immediate and furious response by the university and the fraternity's national body may have violated the free-speech rights of members of the local chapter.

“We need to avoid a rush to judgment," Jones said. "We need to lower our voices, and we need to take a breath.”

In a statement released Friday, SAE's national body said the fraternity reserved the right to discipline chapters that violate the organization's code of conduct.

"We teach our members to serve as role models in their communities and to live up to our creed, 'The True Gentleman,'" the statement read. "As such, when members fail to do so – as they did at the University of Oklahoma – we do not hesitate to take corrective action, starting with closing the chapter and initiating a process to take action against any members who were involved."

Jones also called into question the decision by the university and the national leadership to punish the entire fraternity chapter. The video that was taken featured about 25 members of the organization riding on one of five buses headed for the organization founder's ball, Jones said.

“So we’re talking about one incident, with nine seconds of video, on one of five buses," he said.

Jones also said he was trying to determine whether the university had the right to evict fraternity members from their residence, as it is unclear whether the campus or Sigma Alpha Epsilon owns the property.

His utmost concern, however, was the safety of the SAE members involved in the video, Jones said. Members have received death threats and have been subject to physical intimidation and assaults on campus in the last few days, he said. Several members told Jones they had "frankly been afraid to go to class.”

“I think, while I understand the anger, I sometimes am called in to handle the consequences of anger that has perhaps gone out of control," Jones said.

Wallace, the campus spokesman, said the university police department had not received any reports of death threats or assaults on campus regarding SAE members, or anyone else, in the last week. 

While Jones said he had no immediate plans to sue the university or the fraternity's national body, he warned that the immediate discipline was shaky from a legal standpoint.

“To censure someone or discipline them with nothing more than speech, that’s a long way from the cup to the lip," he said.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

3:53 p.m.: This post updated with a university spokesman saying the campus police department had not received any reports of assaults or death threats made against SAE members in the last week.

The first version of this post published at 2:45 p.m.

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