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As reported in The Daily Pennsylvanian on Jan. 9, the Phi Delta Theta fraternity placed its Pennsylvania Zeta chapter on probation and prescribed mandatory sensitivity training for its members following a controversy which arose around a Christmas photo released by the chapter that included members posing with an inflatable sex doll meant to resemble a black woman.

In judging the appropriateness of this outcome, the seemingly mundane details matter. It is especially critical — in forming an opinion about whether the probation is “fair” — to note that the probation and mandatory programming, which were imposed upon the chapter, were imposed by the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and not by the University of Pennsylvania. This matters because universities have an at-times-enforceable obligation to, in the name of academic and intellectual freedom, refrain from punishing unpopular, distasteful and offensive expression which does not rise to the legal definition of harassment. This tolerance is a necessary precondition for the type of open enquiry which a university must seek to foster. It would, therefore, have been improper for the University to officially express the view that Phi Delt’s actions were wrong by sanctioning the chapter because it is improper for a university to take institutional positions on what the nature of moral right and wrong are. Private membership organizations, such as fraternities, on the other hand, have no such obligation to abstain from adopting institutional philosophies, and may profess certain institutional values which they may sanction members for violating or even require that members actively affirm.

Phi Delta Theta, in fact, does profess such institutional values. Two of the organization’s bedrock principles, according to its website, are “the acquirement individually of a high degree of mental culture, and the attainment personally of a high standard of morality.” Whatever one may think about the photo in question, it is certainly not an unreasonable conclusion that posing with a sex toy in a distributed photo fails to uphold these values. Unlike a university, it is not an essential part of a fraternity’s mission to create an environment which is as conducive as possible to moral philosophizing and therefore it is not wrong of them to make definitive statements about what behaviors are or are not moral and to hold their members to those beliefs. Members can, of course, always choose to leave the organization if they find that its values are irreconcilable with their own. Because of its necessary commitment to open intellectual enquiry, for a university to force a student to make the same choice would be deplorable — it does happen, but that’s another story altogether — but for the reason that it was Phi Delta Theta, and not the University of Pennsylvania that imposed the sanction, there is nothing fundamentally unjust about the probation which Penn’s Phi Delt chapter now faces.

The story doesn’t end there. In making decisions like this, motivations matter a great deal. Though they will probably only ever be known by the individuals at Phi Delta Theta national headquarters who made the call to sanction Penn’s chapter, the true reasons for deciding to do so have a great bearing on the fairness of the sanction. If the fraternity’s national leadership truly felt that the values for which their organization stands were breached, then the decision to sanction was the correct one. If, however, they merely felt compelled to mollify critics and to be seen as doing something to address claims of racial intolerance within the Greek system, then their decision was cowardly, and their choice to denounce and punish the actions of Penn’s chapter was an unjust one. Though the punishments imposed are hardly earth-shattering, to punish members who are not earnestly believed to be wrongdoers for the sake of public relations would be a reprehensible act of scapegoating.

We will probably never know whether the sanction was a sincere expression of genuinely-held beliefs about the Pennsylvania Zeta chapter’s action or a spineless attempt to placate critics at the expense of the chapter members, and so an inevitable margin of uncertainty will remain in any good-faith appraisal of the fraternity’s choices. Given the information currently available, however, indications are that the national fraternity’s decision was justifiable.

ALEC WARD is a College sophomore from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is “Talking Backward” appears every Wednesday.

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