The prohibition of hate-speech or any speech which constitutes a “clear and present danger” to students on college campuses is a good and necessary policy.
Summary of Opinions:
The issue of free-speech on college campuses poses a complex debate. Key factors of the controversy include: the rights to personal safety and free expression, as well as factors of racial and gender tolerance. The volatile nature of the issue ensures adjudication at the highest levels and also a far-reaching historical set of precedents, none of which has successfully “answered” the issues of free-speech and civic welfare. It seems prudent that the US Constitution should provide the framework by which all policies of free-speech are reckoned. “The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, in part, that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” This freedom is deemed a fundamental right, because it assures individual self-fulfillment or autonomy,” (Zingo 17) .
Zingo discusses how the 1st amendment serves many interests: “it is a means of advancing knowledge and searching for truth; it gives all members of society an opportunity to participate in the political process of self-governance; and it provides a safety valve for society[…] because suppression of discussion is injurious to society.” (Zingo) With that in mind, it is also useful to peruse counter-arguments which posit a more modernist interpretation of the First Amendment. “Media-law experts attempt to impose the eighteenth-century ideals of freedom of speech and press on the modern world as if no changes have taken place. Today, First Amendment doctrine assumes that governmental censorship still poses a greater and more real threat to our rational self-governing ideal than self-gratification,” (Collins, and Skover 25).
However, the Constitutional and judicial basis for restrictions on free speech stands far aside from this contention: “the Supreme Court ruled on a case challenging speech regulation[…] question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree,” (Zingo 18).
Questions and Rhetorical Strategies
1) What constitutes “clear and present danger?”
2) What are methods for enforcing legislation.
3) How have prior Supreme Court first amendment cases been decided?
4) How to define a hate-crime.
To convince that racism, sexism, and hate-crimes constitute a “clear and present danger” to students on college campuses will require evidence and citation from legal opinions and legal precedent. The “hate-crime” according to preliminary research seems to be a well-established fact, backed by substantive evidence and scientific study. “Despite the tremendous strides resulting from civil rights legislation, racism remains one of the most pressing social problems in the US[…]
Hate crimes have been prominent on university campuses for the last two decades but vary widely in their targets and severity.” (Marcus et al.) Whether or not a college chooses to restrict the freedom of speech based on the Constitutional premise of “clear and present danger” there is a question as to whether or not prohibition of discriminatory speech, alone, will curtail racist and discriminatory practices. “In recent years, attempts to curtail racially discriminatory activities have focused largely on speech codes to limit inflammatory presentations (Altman, 1993) but these attempts have not been well received.” (Marcus et al.)
I believe that prohibition of hate-speech or any speech which constitutes a “clear and present danger” to students is an important issue for all citizens, but especially to those who may be impacted directly by hate-crimes. Most minority students wqill probably be sympathetic to my thesis while “conservatives” will see it as an infringement of civil rights. Ironically, liberals may also view it this way, or even more ironically they may not view it this way and in so doing, they will have become sympathetic to a restraining of free-speech.
Collins, Ronald K. L., and David M. Skover. The Death of Discourse. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.
Marcus, Ann, et al. “Perceptions of Racism on Campus.” College Student Journal 37.4 (2003): 611+.
Zingo, Martha T. Sex/Gender Outsiders, Hate Speech, and Freedom of Expression: Can They Say That about Me?. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998.
Jacobs, James B., and Kimberly Potter. Hate Crimes Criminal Law & Identity Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
If recent events are any indication, heated debates about free speech may continue to consume our college campuses.
The latest kindling thrown on the fire was an incident at the University of Chicago, where Steve Bannon was invited to speak, and another at Princeton University, where a professor teaching a class on hate speech repeatedly used the n-word.
On campus and beyond, when debates about campus speech flare up, those involved generally fall into one of two groups. On one side: free speech absolutists, who maintain that the ability to speak uncensored is integral to productive academic discourse and a thriving democracy and, drawing on Whitney v. California, that the response to reprehensible speech is more speech. On the other: those who assert that some types of speech are simply beyond the pale and have no place on campuses of higher learning, or perhaps even in society as a whole.
More often than not, both sides miss the point, devoting undue energy to the “free speech” part of the debate and too little attention to the “on campus” part of it.
College campuses are — or should be — designed for learning. With that in mind, framing “free speech” incidents in terms of pedagogy while considering issues of power might yield a more productive conversation. The response to the recent incident at Princeton illustrates how focusing on pedagogy and power can change our understanding of the campus speech issue.
In a class on hate speech, professor Lawrence Rosen reportedly posed a hypothetical question intended to strike students as a gut punch: Is it worse for a white man to punch a black man or call him a “n****r”? In response, students questioned his use of the word, a few walked out and one allegedly directed an expletive at Rosen. Rosen declined to apologize or reconsider the use of the racial slur.
Students are not beyond critique, and sometimes they react with a degree of passion and intensity that feels surprising or unwarranted. But dismissing those reactions as baseless outrage is inappropriate. On college campuses, those charged with the education of young people would do well to seek first to understand students, then to be understood by them. That means taking their responses seriously and hearing them out, not deriding them as “bullies.”
Unfortunately, much of the discussion of a rise in “illiberalism” on campus invokes a “both sides” framing that imagines students as equal players on a level playing field with well-paid, prominent speakers or professors. Penn professor Jonathan Zimmerman’s response to the Princeton incident, in which he criticized the students who challenged Rosen, is an excellent example of this sort of perverse understanding of the power dynamics at play in the classroom and on campus. Zimmerman argues that students “insisting that his [Rosen’s] words intimidated them … are the real bullies.” Even if one operates on the assumption that students and professors are participants in a marketplace of ideas, or that students are customers and institutions of higher education serve them, it stretches the limits of believability to assert that students are somehow in a position of power over famous speakers or tenured academics.
There’s another way to read what happened in Rosen’s classroom, one that takes into account the relative position of students and a tenured professor and situates the incident in the context of a university campus. If we recognize the power disparities between Rosen and his students, and recognize that the college campus is meant to be a place of learning, we might also see the students who confronted Rosen not as an illiberal mob but as a group of students questioning the pedagogical choices of a faculty member.
This is entirely appropriate for members of an academic community. Focusing on pedagogy rather than on “free speech” allows us to view this incident, and others like it, somewhat differently. For example, rather than asserting Bannon’s right to speak on campus, we might ask, “What of value does Bannon have to contribute to an academic discussion of contemporary politics in the U.S.?” Likewise, in Rosen’s case, we might ask, “What pedagogical value is derived from the instructor’s use of n****r? Does it outweigh the potential harm done to students? Does it help them learn, or hinder their education?”
Although the responsibilities of a writer or other public figure are different from those of a professor, these might be appropriate considerations for issues of offensive speech that arise in our broader public discourse as well. We can do better than to imagine vocal criticism as the rabble-rousing of too-sensitive crusaders, indoctrinated by universities to participate in “call-out culture.” At universities and in public discourse, we would do well to consider the role power plays and the responsibility that those with power have to use speech prudently and carefully.
But especially on campus, because colleges are first and foremost institutions of learning, it is important that our conversations about offensive speech be framed not in terms of the abstract ideal of free speech but in terms of the more concrete goal of creating a challenging and enriching educational experience for all students. With that goal in mind, I would hope that we could more often leap to the defense of marginalized students than the privileged and powerful, or our abstract ideals.
The fires of the free speech debate are likely to rage on outside the campus gates. But universities have a distinct mission, and they are a space distinct from society at large. We need to think and talk about them accordingly.
Nadirah Farah Foley is a sociologist of education working toward her doctorate at Harvard. Her academic research examines issues of race, inequality and culture in education and society.