The First Amendment. One of our most basic rights as citizens of the United States of America granted to us from the Bill of Rights. It protects our right to practice our own religion, our right to assemble, but most importantly, our right to freedom of speech. However, because the First Amendment allows all speech, hate speech has always been an issue in the eyes of the general public, especially when it happens on college campuses.
Take the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at Oklahoma University, for example. The frat was heard singing racist chants directed towards African-Americans on a bus where, upon investigation, two students were expelled for leading said chant. Public outcry for incidents such as this force people to make hard decisions.
Should they tolerate it or should they reprimand those involved? In light of situations such as this, colleges are tend to take drastic measures, such as implementing speech codes (to limit hate speech, maintain peace, and be politically correct). Is this a viable response to a controversy of our most basic right? Should students, or even the general public, be silenced when it comes down to it? Where do we draw the line? I believe that, contrary to popular belief, hate speech should not be limited. Instead of limiting our rights, we should learn how to respond properly in the face of degradation. University administrators often refer to speech codes as “necessary” countermeasures for preventing offensive and derogatory speech on their campuses.
They further claim that it is the only way to prevent discrimination in terms of speech. Reed McConnell, an author for the Harvard Crimson, sides with college administrators, stating that “laws that restrict hate speech simply seek to prevent violence against oppressed groups in order to prevent them from becoming further marginalized and oppressed” (McConnell). Although McConnell’s claim may be viable to an extent, the true solution to the problem does not lie in protecting targeted groups, but how to respond to it. As such, I disagree with McConnell’s and the administrators’ questionable view that speech codes will eliminate hate speech. ‘Precautions’ such as this will only silence the speech, not resolve it. Even the Supreme Court has “held that First Amendment protections on campus are necessary for the preservation of our democracy” (FIRE). Speech codes neither eradicate the issue nor allow us to engage in constructive dialogue.
Students will continue to voice hateful or harmful speech behind closed doors as their views and mindsets remain unchanged, rendering speech codes ineffective. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an organization that works to preserve the individual’s rights and liberties, explains why speech codes are not effective at all. They claim that “in order to cure the disease”, universities (and other establishments as a whole) must “do the hard work” (ACLU) to improve diversity on the campuses, not resort to speech codes.
In the past, diverse social groups have proven to propose a variety of views, ideas, and unique perspectives. Although they are more likely to foster difficult conversations, they are essential to fixing issues at the source rather than trying to silence a group. The Supreme Court further develops this argument with their ruling from the Matal V. Tam case. In a unanimous decision, the Court upheld that “The idea that the government may restrict speech expressing ideas that offend…strikes at the heart of the First Amendment” (Volokh).
By implementing speech codes that limit the kind of speech students can engage in, the university, and more specifically its administrators, are stripping their students of their First Amendment. As humans, we grow up with certain views based on our own upbringing, experiences, and perceptions from our friends, family, and the media. When our views are challenged, our immediate inclination is to disagree and fight for our belief, regardless of whether it is right or wrong. The inability to open up to new ideas and perspectives related to social stereotypes and discrimination diverts attention away from “serving the rights of persecuted groups” (ACLU). For instance, Erika Christakis, an administrator at Yale, caused some controversy when she sent out an email to all of the students around Halloween time, claiming that students should be “able to wear what they want, even if they end up offending people” (Stack) in response to another admin’s email barring any student from wearing seemingly offensive garb. Christakis’s email also centered around how preventing “cultural insensitivity” (Bria Godley qtd. from Friedersdorf) threatened the students’ freedom of speech.
However, students, and other administrators alike, did not agree with her point of view. The students were outraged, calling for her resignation as she failed to create a “safe space” for them (Stack). Bria Godley, a Yale student herself, disagreed with Christakis’s opinion, claiming that offensive Halloween costumes “perpetuated negative stereotypes”, causing the “offended” to either repress or retaliate, endangering the students’ “freedom of speech” (qtd.
from Friedersdorf). Furthermore, Godley expressed her dislike with the societal tendencies to avoid talking about race, gender, and cultural stereotypes due to the fear of condemnation. Godley wants society to confront “implicit biases” (qtd. From Friedersdorf) and to “acknowledge their devastating effects” (qtd. From Friedersdorf). I believe Godley is correct in her views on how to respond to this issue in the community. The more reluctant we are to engage in honest dialogue, the less likely we are to confront and combat hate speech. The fear of being ostracized outweighs our willingness to partake in uncomfortable conversations.
Although we have the opportunity to erase this ‘uncomfortable dialogue’ by allowing discourse of controversial views “without the fear of reprimand” (Howard), we need to learn “to push past our discomfort” in order to even think to begin the journey of “reconciliation”(Bria Godley qtd. from Friedersdorf).If colleges continue to censor speech as they do now, they will “merely drive biases underground where they can’t be addressed” (American Civil Liberties Union). Such actions are far more likely to patch up social prejudices and hateful conversations as opposed to eradicating them altogether. The college campus setting was meant for students to expose themselves to diversity and become educated about different kinds of cultures. College also provides the opportunity to have conversations about ethnicity, race, gender, and many other uncomfortable topics. This is only possible, however, with unrestricted free speech.
As soon as speech codes are set in place, limiting what people can say, the existence of fruitful and meaningful discussions such as these become threatened. We must pursue this opportunity to continue constructive social discourse: the practical long term solution in the age old question of order versus freedom. Robert Zimmer, president at the University of Chicago, has a point of view that supports my argument. Zimmer claims that as students question each other, they would challenge “arguments and conclusions” and “demand an ability to rethink one’s own assumptions”. Derek Black’s experience about social discourse further strengthens my case and provides the outline of the path we must adopt in order to combat hate speech. Black, former member of the White Nationalistic Committee, was able change his views about people of color because other students of different cultures engaged in meaningful conversation with him.
He summarized his reformed views by stating, “I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s races require me to think of them in a certain way or be suspicious at their advancements”(qtd. from Saslow). Black’s example proves that social transformation stands a chance, but it requires time and patience. If free expression is limited in college, students will won’t engage in discourse on controversial topics, leaving everyone to their own devices without any confrontation. Let students divulge in constructive social conversation and hate speech will gradually become minimized. Hate speech has risen over the years and speech codes have had no effect apart from limiting the students’ free speech. We can change this, but we need more discourse on campus.
We need people with opposing views to come together and talk about the issue. Try to understand why they believe what they do. How they came to be like this. And at the very least, try to sympathize with it.
Why wait any longer? Start today. Let’s remove speech codes, remove fear, introduce controversial discussions. Don’t silence a group because of their ideals. It goes against one of the basic principles this country was founded upon. Although it will take patience and effort, it must be done.
Nothing good comes with ease. And while it seems counter-intuitive that allowing all kinds of unchecked speech is beneficial, the quicker we learn that this is the only way to escape the echo chamber that is the college campus, the better.