Last week, the Eta Chi chapter of Sigma Nu Fraternity at Old Dominion University made national news for hanging banners from a balcony with the messages: “Rowdy and fun—hope your baby girl is ready for a good time,” “Freshman daughter drop off,” and “Go ahead and drop mom off too…”.
The banners were displayed at an off-campus house and were seen by many visitors to the Virginia college town during move-in week. Concerned parents and students were quick to post photos of the banners on social media along with their reactions.
“We’re the driving force of college rape culture and we should be banned from campus” #ODU #RapeCulture pic.twitter.com/fob5fBXMkL
— Heather p. (@nerdbaitplus3) August 22, 2015
Old Dominion President John Broderick condemned Sigma Nu’s actions along with other university administrators.
Broderick wrote that a young woman told him she had seriously considered going back home after she saw the signs but was reassured when she read the responses from other students on social media. “She realized this callous and senseless act did not reflect the Old Dominion she has come to love.”
According to The Washington Post, Sigma Nu’s national organization has suspended the chapter pending an investigation. “Any Fraternity member found to be responsible for this reprehensible display will be held accountable by the Fraternity,” said a national Sigma Nu spokesperson.
Being suspended by the national fraternity basically means that all administrative and social activities for the chapter stop pending the outcome of whatever university hearings follow an investigation.
But, aren’t these students free to be stupid college students?
There’s no doubt that these banners were crude, tasteless and stupid, but the First Amendment protects them. They are classless, but not obscene. No specific person is being threatened or disparaged and they were not directed at anyone in particular.
Broderick associating the banners with sexual assault is a considerable exaggeration. Sigma Nu members didn’t threaten anyone with sexual assault and hanging some mildly suggestive signs does not constitute an act of violence.
ODU is a public university, and is obligated to extend First Amendment rights to its students. ODU also does not own the off-campus house and cannot dictate what is or isn’t hung from its balcony regardless of the student organization affiliation of the house.
However, the fraternity brothers responsible shouldn’t have been so quick to hang up suggestive banners.
Recent media attention at the University of Virginia and the University of Alabama have put fraternity and sorority life at the center of the culture war around Greek Life, sexual assault and bad PR.
Just last year, the Phi Kappa Psi chapter at UVA came under fire for an alleged gang rape as reported by the Rolling Stone. That story turned out to be fabricated, and the three fraternity brothers are requesting a trial by jury and are seeking more than $75,000 for “mental anguish and severe emotional distress,” caused by the article and its aftermath.
And in recent weeks, Alpha Pi sorority at the University of Alabama faced harsh backlash over a controversial recruitment video that some said lacked diversity and objectified women. The video was pulled from YouTube and has since been put back up.
Overall, these past two years have been difficult in the media for fraternities and sororities across the country.
Is ODU doing more harm than good by punishing the entire chapter of Sigma Nu over some dumb actions by a couple of members?
By punishing Sigma Nu, the university is teaching its students to not take responsibility for their own actions. If a student is made uncomfortable by any message, then it is up to the individual to choose not to associate with the organization or the individuals that share that message.