For the past year, news media have reported that University of Oklahoma President David Boren expelled two Sigma Alpha Epsilon members from the school for leading a racist chant during a fraternity outing.
The New York Times and CBS News reported it soon after video of the chant went viral on March 8, 2015. The OU Daily, the student-run campus newspaper, repeated it four months later when reporting on what would become of the closed fraternity’s former house.
So did the head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education just three weeks ago when writing on The Huffington Post about the organization’s list of 10 worst colleges for free speech in 2015. So did the Tulsa World last month when the fraternity issued a report on the incident.
Oklahoma State University’s student newspaper, The O’Colly, repeated it last month in an article about diversity on that campus. The Tulsa World did so again on Sunday in a story reviewing race relations on the OU campus in the past year.
Two of those local reporters told me that they were sure Boren had expelled the students. The New York Times had said so.
But Boren didn’t expel the students. A university spokesperson said today that the students “permanently withdrew themselves.”
So why do news media keep repeating that Boren expelled them?
In part because Boren publicly issued a letter to the two students saying, “I have determined that you should be expelled from this university effective immediately.”
The same day, Boren said on Twitter, “I have acted today to expel two students who were leaders in the singing of a racist chant.”
That was on Tuesday, March 10, two days after the video went viral.
But an Associated Press story published March 11 noted that one of the students said he had already withdrawn from the university.
On March 12, a sports columnist for The Oklahoman noted that the student “withdrew from school on Monday morning, long before Boren issued the expulsion.”
On March 13, an attorney representing other fraternity members corrected a reporter who said the two had been expelled.
“I’m not sure that expulsion is quite the accurate word to use,” said Stephen Jones at a press conference. “My understanding, and it’s subject to revision, is that these two young men withdrew from the university and they withdrew on Monday morning before President Boren’s press conference, which I believe was on Tuesday.”
(Watch Jones’ comment at the 6:22 minute mark of the video.)
But a year later, news media still report that Boren expelled them.
The O’Colly reporter agreed that he should ask OU rather than continue relying on other reporters.
This was OU Press Secretary Corbin Wallace’s first response on Feb. 16: “The students were permanently withdrawn from the University following the incident last March. I hope this is helpful.”
No, that wasn’t helpful. Did they permanently withdraw themselves, or did the university do it?
In a second email, Wallace clarified, “They permanently withdrew themselves.”
To The O’Colly and Tulsa World reporters’ credit, they published corrections/clarifications.
Today, I wanted to confirm with Wallace that “withdrawing themselves” indeed means the students were not expelled. His replied, “Yes, … is correct in saying the students permanently withdrew from the university.”
Does it make a difference? Under the First Amendment, it does. Being expelled from a public university for uttering protected speech off campus seems like a winnable First Amendment lawsuit. Withdrawing yourself from school isn’t one.
I am raising the issue in part because the current reporting leaves the impression that a public university president was empowered under the First Amendment to expel students for no other reason than they uttered disgustingly offensive speech.
Yes, the students should have been ashamed of what they said. Yes, they should have been criticized. But that wouldn’t justify a public university’s violation of their First Amendment rights.
My other reason is that this exemplifies why reporters should do their own reporting.
In my public affairs reporting course, students may not quote from other news media in their stories. “Do your own reporting,” the instructions emphasize.
Some students don’t get why they can’t just repeat what another journalist reported.
Here’s why. Because maybe sources will tell you what they didn’t tell other reporters. Because maybe circumstances have changed since the previous story was written.
And because sometimes, even The New York Times gets it wrong.
Better to get it right on your own.
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications