Opinion Columns & Blogs

At UC Merced, all speech matters

“Free speech is meant to protect unpopular speech. Popular speech, by definition, needs no protection.”

Neal Boortz

My students are almost universal in their opinion that “hate speech” should be banned from our campus. They argue that hate speech is hurtful and could incite violence, causing significant damage.

Yes, hate speech causes some of us to become uncomfortable. But it is the very discomforting nature of unpopular rhetoric that makes it so valuable. If we only allowed perspectives to be shared by those with whom the majority agreed, we would have suppressed the voices of those who advocated for the abolition of slavery, for women’s suffrage, an integrated military and the rights of same-sex couples.

The First Amendment explicitly states “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” Short, sweet and to the point, the Founding Fathers established in the preeminent constitutional amendment – not the second, third or fourth – the right of everyone to speak.

So why does it bother us so much when some exercise that right? That’s the topic of a talk by Erwin Chemerinsky, who will speak at UC Merced on Feb. 13. The dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, Chereminsky has authored 10 books on issues of Constitutional law.

Just because someone has a right to share their viewpoint, nothing compels the rest of us to listen. As individuals, we have the right to be insulated from ideas that repulse us or to ignore viewpoints we find unacceptable. It’s as simple as that.

No one compels us to access an objectionable website or open an objectionable attachment or view a “comment” that offends us. Each of us chooses to access both acceptable and objectionable viewpoints and the constitution is clear in that it protects speech without regard to content.

With very few exceptions, government must allow a wide spectrum of speech and is limited to restricting only the “time, place and manner” for that speech.

On university campuses, it is even more essential that a wide range of views be allowed a voice. At its very essence, a college campus is an environment inhabited almost exclusively by adults there to be “educated,” which by definition includes the process of receiving “intellectual, moral and social” instruction.

As a university lecturer, I begin my courses by informing students that I will not provide them with the truth, but instead a range of perspectives from which they can glean their truth. George Washington was both a “Founding Father” of our nation and an owner of hundreds of slaves. Do those two historical facts render him a “patriot” or “fiend?”

Maybe he was both and neither. But a university campus should be an environment that has a full and uninhibited exploration of perspectives available to the entire campus community.

Some argue the violence accompanying the expression of unpopular views or the high cost associated with ensuring safety during the time those views are being expressed, justifies exercising prior restraint of unpopular speech.

But the Constitution is clear in its mandate that all speech is protected, including so-called “hate” speech.

University campuses should continue to welcome the expression of all views, specially those that make us uncomfortable. By being exposed to views different from our own, we might learn that “All Speech Matters” in a way that expands our thinking and improves each of us.

Mark T. Harris is director of pre-law studies at UC Merced.

Free Speech on Campus: How Free Is It?

Who: Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of University of California, Berkeley law school and co-author of “Free Speech on Campus.”

What: Presentation, student panel discussion

When: Tuesday, 4:30-5:30 p.m.

Where: UC Merced Classroom and Office Building 2, Room 110

Details: (209) 201-6590