Earlier this month, the University of Texas dismissed Buck Burnette from the football team for posting a racial slur, referring to Barack Obama, on his Facebook page.
Perhaps there is a good reason to support this decision. The university’s need for some discretion in choosing what kind of judgment or character to condone or chide in their students? Team unity, morale, etc.? I don’t know. I’m not an educator or an administrator. I have no adolescents in my charge. So, perhaps I don’t fully understand those issues.
What I do understand is how many things are wrong with the dismissal of this (admittedly scorn-worthy) student.
* The person toward whom the slur was applied is Barack Obama. President-Elect Barack Obama. If being American means anything, it means having the ability to say horrible things about our leaders.
* Buck has absolutely no position of authority and can’t be construed as intimidating anyone.
* While society has a right to spurn Buck for being a despicable racist, and that means a team he plays for has a right to kick him out, this particular team is part of the University of Texas, a state university, which according to well-established legal tradition, is an arm of the state, which is prohibited by the First Amendment from punishing speech, PARTICULARLY speech criticizing politicians. I know calling someone by a racist slur is not what most of us consider worthwhile political “criticism” but that kind of content-based judgment by state actors is PRECISELY what the First Amendment proscribes.
* Buck made his comment on Facebook, and no matter how publicly viewable that comment was, it was still private speech, that no one was obliged to read if they didn’t want to.