An LSU fraternity that displayed a banner mocking the 1970 fatal shootings of Kent State college students could face disciplinary action from the university, System President and Baton Rouge Chancellor King Alexander said Monday.
But the students could have an ally on their side in the form of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, whose executive director said any talk of punishing the students would be tantamount to violating their constitutionally protected free speech.
On Saturday, students in the Zeta Zeta chapter of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity hung a sign from their fraternity house that read: “Getting Massacred Is Nothing New To Kent St.,” referencing what has become known as the Kent State Massacre.
On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed students protesting U.S. military operations in Cambodia. Four students were killed in the shootings; nine were wounded.
LSU’s football team beat Kent State 45-13 on Saturday.
Doug Lanpher, executive director of the DKE fraternity’s national chapter, did not respond to a message left at his office on Monday seeking comment.
Alexander said he saw the banner Saturday morning just moments before campus police told the students to take the sign down. He said the university could impose some disciplinary action on the fraternity but did not specify how likely that would be or what potential actions LSU could take.
“This was really bad judgment and poor taste,” Alexander said. “Hopefully, they’ll use better judgment from now on.”
The fraternity’s LSU chapter has a history of hanging controversial banners including a sign last year that read: “Like the Batman Premiere, We’re Starting Off With a Bang!” It was a reference to the July 20, 2012, mass shooting inside an Aurora, Colo., movie theater during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in which James Holmes is accused of killing 12 people.
The fraternity also has previously hung signs making light of the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria and the 2011 trial in which Florida woman Casey Anthony was acquitted of killing her 2-year-old daughter Caylee Anthony.
Alexander, who has been in Baton Rouge since June, said he was unaware that LSU’s Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity had a history of hanging provocative banners outside its house.
“This is the first time I’ve seen or heard anything about this,” Alexander said. “If it’s a pattern, we’ve really got to do some educating so that they are much more sensitive to the issues of the day.”
Marjorie Esman, ACLU Louisiana executive director, said she takes exception to both campus police asking the students to take the banner down and Alexander leaving open the possibility that the university could punish the students.
“Maybe they were insensitive, maybe they were foolish,” Esman said. “But they have a legal right to hang a sign in front of their fraternity house.
“I remember Kent State. Those students died protecting their First Amendment rights,” Esman continued. “For LSU to consider disciplining these students makes a mockery of what those Kent State students were standing up for.”
Esman didn’t, however, say what actions the ACLU might take if LSU decides to punish the fraternity members.
The ACLU has a policy not to comment on potential future actions, she said.
Members of the fraternity have since apologized for the Kent State banner in a statement calling the sign inappropriate and apologizing to the Kent State community and to the people who were personally affected by the shootings.
The statement reads in part: “We, as young college students, did not grasp the full scope of the tragedy and its long-lasting effects. This is not how we would like to represent our fraternity as well as our school, and we certainly hope we did not put a negative light on your school’s visit to Louisiana State University.”
LSU previously suspended the fraternity in 2006 on suspicion of hazing after members introduced a goat into their house during an initiation ritual. Members of DKE agreed to a two-year “chapter introspection period” and agreed to ban alcohol from the fraternity house and to halt recruiting events for two years after the incident.