Free Speech Suit Ends Ban on UC Riverside Fraternity : Law: Group’s shirts were called racially offensive. But order to disband is lifted after 1st Amendment challenge.
Striking what they called a blow against political correctness, attorneys for a UC Riverside fraternity have made two top campus administrators promise to undergo 1st Amendment “sensitivity” training and drop their plans to punish group members over T-shirts that depicted stereotypes of Mexicans drinking.
The T-shirts--produced by the Phi Kappa Sigma chapter for its rush week membership drive in late September--caused an uproar on the Riverside campus, prompting school officials to disband the fraternity chapter for three years.
But Phi Kappa Sigma filed suit in Riverside Superior Court, claiming that the members’ right of free speech had been violated. To settle the suit, UC Riverside officials agreed Oct. 28 to rescind the punishment--and, in a highly unusual step, have the administrators in charge take legal training about the safeguards of the 1st Amendment.
“Basically, we want to let these administrators know that the university is not a place where you can take refuge from the Constitution,” said Maura Whalen, spokeswoman for the Individual Rights Foundation, a nonprofit Los Angeles group that represented Phi Kappa Sigma and fraternities that have sued administrators at other campuses over 1st Amendment rights.
The T-shirts in question depicted a beach scene with two Mexican caricatures, one in sombrero and serape, holding what appear to be beer bottles. The picture is surrounded by the words: “It doesn’t matter where you come from as long as you know where you are going.”
Whalen said the words are from a song by the late reggae star Bob Marley “that as far as I can tell makes a pretty strong statement against racism.” The fraternity gave the T-shirt to members and potential pledges for a “south of the border” party, she said.
The shirts became a controversy on the 8,700-student campus after the Latino student group MEChA--Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan--filed a complaint. UC Riverside spokesman Jack Chappell said the group believed the message, taken with the picture, “was in fact a slur and it was offensive.”
The school’s inter-fraternity council recommended that the chapter destroy the T-shirts and banned Phi Kappa Sigma from intramural sports and rush week for a year. Assistant Vice Chancellor Vincent Del Pizzo, however, went further and ordered the chapter dissolved for three years.
Chappell said Del Pizzo considered the T-shirt incident the “last straw” because the fraternity has had 14 violations of campus rules since 1984, including drunken conduct, vandalizing a campus bus stop and wearing T-shirts depicting a skeleton on the back making obscene gestures with both hands.
“The problem was this was the wrong ‘last straw’ for him to be leveling the suspension that he did,” Chappell said. “It happened to be a (constitutionally) protected last straw, and rightfully so.”
The fraternity’s suit cited the 1st Amendment and a new state law that makes it illegal for high schools and colleges to impose rules contrary to the constitutional provision.
“The irony to all this is the motto of the fraternity is ‘Strength Through Diversity,’ ” said John Howard, the foundation attorney who filed the case. “There’s more diversity in this particular fraternity chapter than any other chapter on campus. This is the worst group they could have picked on.”
The settlement requires Del Pizzo and Kevin Ferguson, director of campus activities, to take the 1st Amendment training. Del Pizzo declined comment. Ferguson could not be reached.
Howard called the requirement “sensitivity training” that would “make clear to administrators that the 1st Amendment exists for speech you don’t like. You don’t need the 1st Amendment for speech you do like.”
Chappell said the officials have yet to take the training, but there is some thought of inviting former CBS news president and Columbia University professor emeritus Fred W. Friendly to host a “media and society” seminar on campus about how free speech can sometimes collide with civility and respect for ethnic groups.
Despite the legal settlement, the fraternity chapter still must abide by sanctions imposed by its national office requiring a letter of apology to the campus and each chapter member to complete 16 hours of community service in a Latino area.
A member of the fraternity chapter declined comment Wednesday. But an officer at the society’s national headquarters in Philadelphia said board members imposed the sanctions because it “felt that the chapter was frankly kind of stupid for not realizing that people could be offended.”
“Students today believe they live in a bubble,” said Alan Preston, Phi Kappa Sigma’s executive vice president. “We’re trying to send a clear message to other chapters that you have to be aware that you’re in the real world. The real world isn’t (just) after graduation.”
The Riverside incident is not the first time that college administrators have been forced to backpeddle from punishing a fraternity for offensive remarks. In March, Cal State Northridge reinstated the Zeta Beta Tau chapter after its members enraged some Latino students with an off-color invitation to a Mexican-theme party.
The fraternity admitted distributing the flyer, which featured song lyrics describing lewd acts with a prostitute named Lupe. Last November, campus administrators suspended the group for 14 months, but the Individual Rights Foundation filed suit, claiming the fraternity’s 1st Amendment rights were violated.
CSUN President Blenda J. Wilson agreed to a settlement reinstating the fraternity last April 1 after attorneys advised that the school might lose the potentially costly case. The agreement still required fraternity members to attend cultural diversity workshops and run full-page ads of apology in the campus newspaper.