LSU students who were shouting obscene lyrics to some of the Tiger Band’s songs during the Texas A&M game were surreptitiously videotaped by Athletic Department officials, raising questions about free speech rights in the university’s effort to crack down on the offensive behavior.
“It was kind of an impromptu thing,” LSU Associate Athletic Director Michael Bonnette said, and the videos were not necessarily taken to incriminate anyone.
“It was nothing more than trying to pinpoint locations and groups (who were shouting the obscene phrases).”
He said the administrators planned to talk with the students, but he was not sure whether disciplinary action could or would be taken against the students.
The rowdy conduct has been a longtime problem — even captured on national television broadcasts — that led the university to remove from the Golden Band of Tiger Land’s playlist those songs most likely to get obscene treatment from some fans.
But this year, in an effort to re-energize student spirit, they brought back the songs.
“We felt like … the atmosphere in Tiger Stadium hadn’t been the same this year,” Bonnette said, so they mounted a Tradition Matters campaign, trying to keep school spirit clean.
During the Nov. 23 game, the band played the old favorites, but many fans in the student section — and, to a limited degree, elsewhere in Tiger Stadium — continued to belt out expletive-laden lines.
Bonnette says singing such lyrics embarrasses the university, especially at games that are televised nationally, and can harm LSU’s reputation.
LSU Dean of Students K.C. White says she has not heard if any of the videos were forwarded to the Office of Student Advocacy and Accountability. However, White said, “any reports, videos or otherwise, would need to be reviewed in light of the Code of Student Conduct and balanced with free speech protections.”
The Code of Conduct contains clauses against harassment, obscenity and disorderly conduct, but does not have a written clause specific to uttering vulgar language in a public arena.
Each football ticket does point out in the small print that the Athletic Department “reserves the right in its sole discretion, without the refund of any portion of the ticket price, to refuse admission to or eject any person whose conduct is deemed to be disorderly, disruptive to others, or who uses abusive or threatening language.”
What is not so certain is whether obscene language would be covered under “abusive and threatening” descriptions, or if that could be legally deemed “disorderly conduct” if the student was otherwise well behaved.
Craig Freeman, an associate professor with the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, notes that because Tiger Stadium is a limited public forum, the Athletic Department has the right to kick out fans. “There is a code of conduct on the back of your ticket for what you should do inside the stadium,” he explains, adding, “They can kick you out for all kinds of reasons.”
He acknowledges the situation is vague, although the university would have a right to refuse to sell tickets to future games or to confiscate (with a refund) the season passes of offending students.
If a student were to be expelled from the university for singing vulgar lyrics, Freeman said, that student would have the grounds to fight that expulsion. “I don’t think there’s any grounds for any punishment for students, besides expulsion from the game, for conduct that some may not like.”
Nevertheless, Freeman said it is unconstitutional for the Athletic Department to limit students’ ability to utter vulgar lyrics. “The University has the right to … request that students don’t say bad words … (and) … students have the right to ignore those requests.”
Still, that doesn’t mean Freeman condones the singing of the obscene lyrics at the games.
“Do you have the right to do it?,” Freeman said. “Sure. Should you do it? No.”