WSU won’t discipline students who hung controversial banner

Wichita Eagle file photo

Wichita State University will not discipline students who hung a banner from the side of a fraternity house and ignited controversy on social media over the weekend.

A national organization had earlier criticized WSU for its investigation, saying it violated free-speech rights protected by the First Amendment.

The issue related to a banner that briefly hung from the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house on Sept. 8. It offered “free house tours” during Greek recruitment, which some students viewed as encouraging sexual assault and perpetuating rape culture.

WSU spokesman Joe Kleinsasser said the banner, which read “New Members Free House Tours!”, was up briefly before being taken down. An investigation by the university began shortly thereafter.

“WSU does not condone sexual harassment in any form,” according to a tweet from Wichita State Student Affairs on Sept. 9. “The inappropriate banner at Phi Delt was addressed (and) sent on for further investigation.”

WSU’s Vice President for Student Affairs Teri Hall said in statement Wednesday that WSU had reviewed the incident.

“The banner triggered uncomfortable feelings, but the banner was protected speech under the First Amendment,” Hall wrote. “WSU Student Affairs doesn’t believe university disciplinary action is appropriate.”

“Any action taken by the fraternity chapter and its members is independent of the university decision,” she added.

The fraternity had announced on its Twitter feed over the weekend that the members involved were suspended and that “further investigation is underway.”

“The recent actions of two members of our chapter in no way align with the values of Phi Delta Theta,” according to the Sept. 9 statement. “We apologize for these actions.”

It was not immediately clear where the fraternity’s investigation stood Wednesday evening.

The Sunflower, WSU’s student newspaper, first reported that the incident had also sparked an investigation under Title IX, which forbids discrimination in education based on gender.

Kleinsasser said late Wednesday the chapter is not facing any charges under WSU’s Title IX policy.

‘Protected expression’

A national organization had urged WSU the day before to drop its investigation.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, wrote in a Sept. 12 letter to university president John Bardo that the investigation threatened freedom of expression.

“WSU’s assertion that the banner constituted sexual harassment and its resulting investigation … violate WSU students’ First Amendment rights, which WSU is legally and morally bound to uphold,” wrote Ari Cohn, the group’s individual rights defense program director.

“We urge WSU to … make clear to the campus community that sexual harassment policies will not be used to punish constitutionally-protected expression,” Cohn wrote.

Cohn’s letter said the First Amendment is binding for universities and colleges like WSU.

“WSU’s belief that the banner amounts to actionable sexual harassment is unsupported by fact or law,” Cohn wrote.

Cohn said the banner’s brief appearance could not have “impacted any student’s ability to fully participate in campus life.” He also said the lack of clearly sexual language meant the banner was not objectively offensive.

“The text is not itself sexually explicit,” Cohn wrote. “At most, it amounts to a crude invitation designed to attract the attention of members of the opposite sex.”

Cohn later told The Eagle he was pleased with the result, but that an investigation had been unnecessary.

“Public announcements of such investigations have a profoundly chilling effect on campus discourse, leaving students uncertain as to what they can say without getting in trouble,” he said. “Administrators should exhibit restraint before launching and announcing disciplinary investigations.”

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar