Free speech on campus demands dialogue, not censorship

Demonstrators sharing opposing views argue during a rally to protest an alt-right speaker last April in Berkeley.
Demonstrators sharing opposing views argue during a rally to protest an alt-right speaker last April in Berkeley. AP

UC Berkeley erupted in protest last spring when alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos spoke on campus. Students criticized the university for providing him a platform and demanded that administrators enact policies rejecting hate speech.

This was not an isolated incident. The university spent nearly $4 million on security for three free-speech events last year. Other campuses nationwide, hoping to avoid such costs, canceled talks by Yiannopoulos and other alt-right figures only to be accused of violating free-speech rights. Where is the line between free speech and hate speech, and what universities are required to do?

College students are more sensitive to the harmful effects of hateful language than ever before. At the same time, the alt-right feels emboldened by tea party members in Congress and a Trump-occupied White House. In this highly mobilized and politically polarized climate, students respond to alt-right speakers with protests. Many demand campuses ban hate speech because it contributes to a climate hostile toward minorities.

Free speech and hate speech are among the most controversial and widely-discussed topics on campus. But polling suggests students hold conflicting views. A Gallup poll conducted this year found a majority of students agree with free speech. The same poll found an overwhelming majority also agree with policies that ban hate speech on campus.

As UC Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman argue in their book “Free Speech on Campus,” policies limiting freedom of speech have historically been used to silence those advancing anti-racist and other progressive viewpoints. Chemerinsky visits UC Merced on Tuesday for a public lecture and discussion with students, as part of the Chancellor’s Dialogue on Diversity and Interdisciplinarity.

Before the Civil War, Southern states passed laws making it illegal to discuss abolition on the grounds that such discussions incited violence. Before the courts struck down the University of Michigan’s policy restricting hate speech, the majority of complaints that came to the university were against African-American students, the very students the policy was designed to protect. Those advocating for restrictions on speech need to remember this history. These policies often have unintended consequences.

Universities that want to promote free speech and challenge hate speech are in a difficult position. Courts have struck down policies that ban hate speech as a violation of the First Amendment. But just because statements that others might find offensive are protected, doesn’t mean all speech is unrestricted.

Speech that threatens others, incites violence or creates a hostile environment is illegal. Hate speech used in the commission of a crime – i.e., spray-painting racial slurs on a building – is prosecuted under hate-crime statutes and carry harsher penalties. College campuses can restrict the time and location of speech, as long as the restrictions aren’t based on the speech’s content and speakers are still afforded the opportunity to share their views. Campuses can also require outside groups or speakers, no matter their political orientation, to pay for security costs above a certain level.

For universities, fundamental priorities include protecting the safety of all members of the campus community and ensuring that educational activities occur without disruption. University administrators must condemn hate speech and punish that threatens or meets the definition of harassment. They must work to prevent discrimination on the part of campus organizations and establish clear reporting requirements to address discrimination and harassment.

But universities also have a responsibility to provide an environment that welcomes students of diverse backgrounds while also providing a safe space for civil discourse. One way to achieve this is through campus events that promote dialogue, such as Chemerinsky’s visit to UC Merced. I will be moderating a panel featuring a diverse group of students in dialogue with Chemerinsky on the topic “Free Speech on Campus – How Free is It?” beginning at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Classroom and Office Building 2, Room 110.

Campuses need to exercise their right to free speech by discussing their values and goals and promoting a healthy campus climate. Safe, civil and open dialogue is essential to this process.

Nella Van Dyke is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced.