Where One Hears Free Speech, Another Hears Hate Speech

College students and educators continue to struggle with balancing free speech rights on campus while keeping debate from turning violent as a new school year approaches.

In the United States, the free exchange of ideas is the bedrock of college campuses. But avoiding violence — like the deaths of three people in Charlottesville, Virginia near the University of Virginia a year ago during a protest over race — shows the difficulty in keeping debate from turning into a brawl.

Hate speech should not be protected, say many students.

When a speaker like Charles Murray at the University of Michigan attributes class differences in America to genetic superiority, they say a line is crossed from speech to propaganda. Ideas that have little basis in science or scholarly research shouldn’t be on the same stage as valid research, they said.

“His views on race, intelligence, and inequality are hateful and archaic,” argues Isaac Whitcomb, a rising junior at American University.

“Protesters believe that hosting speakers with white nationalist views legitimize those views,” says Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, judicial affairs editor at the liberal news blog Daily Kos. “Some students feel that silence implicates them, or at least signals that they condone racism.”

Students say they know the difference between hate speech and free speech, and don’t want hate spread on campus. A 2016 Gallup poll found that nearly 70 percent of students said they believed universities should restrict speech that was “intentionally offensive to certain groups.”

And among the 1,500 undergraduate students surveyed by the Brookings Institution in August 2017, 51 percent thought it was fine to loudly and repeatedly disrupt a “very controversial speaker” … “so the audience cannot hear him or her.”

On some campuses, officials have tried to maintain the peace by creating “free speech zones,” designated for unrestricted speech – some inside fences. Los Angeles Pierce College, Ohio University, Wichita State University, Modesto Junior College are a few schools to establish those zones.

Outside the “free speech zones,” those discussions and activities are prohibited. The legality of these zones has been questioned.

In “University of Cincinnati Chapter for Young Americans v. Williams,” the federal district court ruled that the university’s free speech zone, which was less than .01 percent of the entire campus, was in violation of the First Amendment. The court found the university failed to demonstrate a compelling interest in justifying the exclusion of free speech activities from other areas on campus.

The southern state of Georgia in May became the 10th state to pass legislation outlawing free speech zones on college campuses. The other states are Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Tennessee.

On the other side is the call for unrestrained freedom of speech on college campuses.

“There are absolutists …who argue freedom of speech is the cornerstone of our democracy,” said Mary Beth Leidman, a professor of communications media and media law at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, referring to the advocacy rights group American Civil Liberties Union and the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. They have advocated that “the absolute freedom of speech must be protected absolutely,” Leidman said.

 

Lost in the discussion about unfettered freedom of speech is the 1977 Supreme Court decision, “National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie.” The nationalist party promoted a Nazi and anti-Semitic platform, and despite attempts by Skokie, Illinois, to restrict the group, the court ruled it could march in the predominately Jewish town, north of Chicago. All speech is free speech, the court ruled.

Many people are unaware of that decision, says Howard Gillman, chancellor of the University of California-Irvine, because, “Not a lot of civics teaching [is] going on in high school,” or students would know that hate speech is protected under the First Amendment.

There are exceptions to First Amendment protections. Libel, or false statements that injure a person’s reputation, is an exception. Incitement, which is speech that intentionally advocates imminent lawlessness, is another caveat.

“For example, talking to an enraged mob outside a building an urging them to burn it down. That would be punishable,” says Volokh.

But hate speech isn’t measured only as a constitutional issue.

“Hate speech can make you feel threatened of your existence,” Alejandrina Guzman, student government president at University of Texas-Austin. “When you already feel that you don’t have adequate resources or have the adequate personnel on campus to navigate those conversations, it’s threatening.”

Following events in which a campus speaker negatively impacts certain students, “administrators need to provide official platforms to show they care,” Guzman says.

Universities find themselves in a tough place when a campus speaker is found offensive by some students. Any condemnation made by the university runs the risk of alienating a part of its student body.

“Universities should only speak out when the core values of their institution are threatened,” Gillman advises.

 

Stephen Hayes, editor in chief of The Weekly Standard, says curbing any speech goes in the wrong direction. “More speech is the best antidote to hate speech,” he says.

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