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March 12, 2015

Students expelled from the University of Oklahoma after they were caught on video singing a blatant racist song have hired a high-profile lawyer, keeping their legal options open.

Oklahoma's flagship public university expelled two members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity who were seen leading a racist chant laced with references to lynching and exclusion. David Boren, the president of the University of Oklahoma, denounced the incident, calling the students disgraceful.

But are the students being exploited? Is the chant, however vile, protected under free speech?

On WGBH’s Greater Boston on Thursday, longtime civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate and Tufts University Center for Race & Democracy founding director Peniel Joseph debated the limits of free speech and whether the punishment fit the crime.

"My concern is less about free speech protection and more about what can a university do within its purview to punish students who create a hostile environment," Joseph said. "There's consequences for our speech."

"The punishment may fit the crime, but the problem is that the punishment is unconstitutional," countered Silverglate.

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