The FBI has widened its investigation into the desecration of the James Meredith statue on the campus of the University of Mississippi. The university is eager to find criminal charges that stick for those who draped a noose and a confederate-style old Georgia state flag around the statue.
FBI policy prohibits the release of information about ongoing investigations. Thus just a terse statement Friday afternoon that the FBI together with the University Police Department will expand the investigation for potential violations of federal law. The problem is that while most reasonable people would agree that tying a noose around the statue of the first black student to enroll at Ole Miss is unacceptable – the act does not easily make for a crime – as Oxford lawyer Tom Freeland explains.
“A prosecutor would have to show it was an intent to intimidate someone in addition to showing the students put the noose around the statue. You have to show on top of the expressive conduct – because of the First Amendment – you have to show it was intended as a threat.”
So the question is whether this is protected free speech or constitutes a hate crime against a minority at an institution of learning, which is a federal offense. The university has made it clear that it’s hoping for the latter – trying to make an example of the three suspects, all 19-year-old freshmen from Georgia. Meanwhile, the university is moving ahead with its own punishment, confirms spokesman Danny Blanton.
“The University of Mississippi has begun the student judicial process," Blanton said. "We will look at all the evidence that has been collected in this matter and will determine what violation of university policy or student conduct was committed by this. And once this determination has been made we’ll move forward with taking the appropriate action."
Late Friday, the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, that all three young men had belonged to prior to being expelled over the incident, has indefinitely suspended its chapter at Ole Miss.
"It is embarrassing that these men had previously identified with our fraternity,” said Brian Warren, the fraternity’s chief executive, in a taped statement.
"SigEp has championed racial equality and issues on diversity since 1959, when it became the first national fraternity to invite members of all races, creeds and religions to join its membership," Warren said. "For this to occur in 2014 is an insult to the legacy of James Meredith, the University of Mississippi community and the SigEp alumni who fought for racial equality in the late 1950s”.
Fraternity students whom MPB spoke to over the weekend were universally appalled by the alleged actions of these three students and the damage it had done to the university’s image.
Sandra Knispel, MPB News, Oxford.