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Should schools punish students for offensive off-campus behavior?

Probably not

Several schools in New Jersey are struggling to figure out how to deal with an offensive video involving their respective students. The video, which surfaced on social media recently, features numerous young adults, most of them white, staring into the camera and repeating the word “nigger” in deadpan monotone. It’s a stupid, juvenile stunt, but it has also roiled the campuses in question, with many calling for the students’ dismissals from their respective schools.

Should that happen? The obvious answer seems to be “no,” for a variety of good reasons. For one, offensive jokes—even grossly offensive ones—should not be grounds for dismissal; if it were, then probably four-fifths of all college students are under the threat of expulsion. Perhaps more importantly, the video itself was filmed off-campus, for at least most of the students and possibly all of them (it’s not like they could have all been on their respective campuses at the same time). Even if a university forbid its students from uttering racial slurs as part of dumb jokes, it would defy credulity to imagine that such a ban extends past the borders of the campus itself.

Universities are not parents; they’re not even guardians. It is true that many schools have undertaken that role in recent years, cultivating an ever-more-infantilized student body with ever-greater paternalism and indulgence. That is their prerogative, of course, and in the end if they wish to forbid offensive jokes on campus, that is also their right. But it is bizarre to suggest that such authority can or should extend outside of the university grounds itself. Schools need to know their limits, one of which, it should go without saying, is that off-campus jokes do not fall under their regulatory purview.

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