Two historic fraternities at the University of Virginia were cleared by a student panel yesterday of "disorderly conduct" accusations stemming from a Halloween party at which guests were photographed wearing blackface.
The panel, convened by the university's Inter-Fraternity Council, determined that the actions by Kappa Alpha and Zeta Psi fell within the bounds of constitutionally protected speech and could not be punished.
Yet the panel also strongly condemned the behavior of those at the party for "an apparent historical blindness and lack of sensitivity" and recommended that both houses impose education and internal discipline programs for members.
"Although we can't find them guilty because of the First Amendment, clearly this has damaged the [fraternity] system and our reputation," said Philip Trout, a senior who is president of the Inter-Fraternity Council. However, the council can only urge -- not require -- the houses to take such measures.
The discovery of the party photos, which had circulated for several weeks on the Internet, sparked an uproar on the Charlottesville campus, where students already were embroiled in a debate over how well blacks are integrated into the university's social life. The photos showed at least three costumed students with their faces painted black or brown at a party co-hosted by the two fraternities. One man was dressed as Uncle Sam; two other men were dressed as tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams.
Many students came forward to decry the costumes as racist and offensive throwbacks to the days of minstrelsy. But others wrote letters to the campus daily newspaper defending the costumes as innocent fun -- one recent graduate maintained that the tennis costumes simply paid homage to "popular icons in our culture" -- and criticizing the backlash as political correctness.
The national organizations of both fraternities sanctioned their U-Va. chapters after college officials discovered the photos Nov. 18. Kappa Alpha lifted its suspension of its chapter after two days, when leaders determined that none of its members were involved in the incident.
Zeta Psi, though, remains on probation pending a disciplinary hearing with the national organization. National leaders for both organizations said they would follow through with the Inter-Fraternity Council's recommendation for diversity education.
"This is a new one for us, but we're going to make sure that message gets delivered very clearly," said George McNeillie, director of public relations for Zeta Psi. He said that the chapter had run a full-page apology ad in the campus newspaper and that members had distributed fliers at a recent football game denouncing the practice of wearing blackface.
Although many students called on the university administration to take action against the fraternities, campus officials said any investigation or sanctions would be handled by students as part of a policy of student self-government.
The Inter-Fraternity Council panel also found both fraternities guilty of allowing minors to drink alcohol. Both were sentenced to a month of social probation that will be lifted if they do not incur more violations this academic year.