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When Hate Speech and Free Speech Collide

Hundreds of hate incidents have taken place on college campuses over the past two years, from nooses hung on trees to a 77 percent increase in White supremacist propaganda during the 2017-18 school year. Anti-Semitic acts have seen a particular surge in the past month, as swastikas have been carved in pumpkins, stamped in the snow, and painted on a Jewish professor’s office walls, to name just a few examples. “It’s unsettling at best, it’s terrorizing at worst,” said Lecia Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center in response to two incidents at Duke last month.

Despite the frequency of these events, many campus leaders continue to stumble badly in their responses. Some have put out public statements that do not condemn the hateful content of the messages, focusing only on how these actions violate campus policies, such as being posted by non-students, without permits or with improper adhesives. Others have responded unevenly to incidents targeting different groups. In other instances, leaders have only noted that such acts are protected by the First Amendment, and that people have the right to disagree.

Dr. Cynthia Miller-IdrissDr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss

Responses that do not strongly condemn the content of hateful acts can add a sense of institutional indifference to these already vile incidents, particularly in the eyes of those targeted. They also mistakenly position free speech against hate speech, assuming that protecting free speech means there are constraints on denouncing hate. This is categorically wrong.

Recent developments are making this more challenging, because hate speech is increasingly appearing in designated and de facto ‘free speech’ areas. In the past month for example, swastikas have been spray-painted twice on the Rock at University of Tennessee-Knoxville, as well as on the “free expression bridge” at Duke University. At the former, the interim chancellor was criticized for responding by stating only that the university “does not condone” such actions. Separately, the university noted that such messages were “hurtful and threatening to many members of our community.”

Statements like these can leave the impression that offense to hate is optional. By suggesting that only some on campus are impacted by a hateful incident, such statements miss the importance of expressing solidarity with vulnerable populations when it is most needed. Equivocating on this matter can adversely affect students’ sense of well-being, and contribute to negativity and anxiety in the campus climate.

Such deliberately neutral statements may be related to concerns about how to best navigate protections for free speech, or avoid accusations of censoring political opinions. After all, barring a threat to public safety, the First Amendment does offer protections for free speech at public universities and colleges (and most private universities also follow this standard). Historically, this protection has been extended even to terribly offensive and noxious statements. Although there have been changes in some university policies — such as at the University of Virginia’s recent ban of White supremacist Richard Spencer and nine other speakers in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville last year — free speech on campus continues to be litigated and enforced.

But university leaders who respond to hate by only citing free speech concerns misunderstand the relationship between the two issues. Condemning hate does not infringe on free speech protections. On the contrary: it is possible – and, in fact, essential — that campus leaders strongly condemn hateful incidents and simultaneously affirm the values of free speech and inclusion to their core research and teaching missions.

Dr. Jonathan FriedmanDr. Jonathan Friedman

Some campus leaders are doing better at condemning hate. At Duke, for example, the statement by president Vincent Price last month referred to the spray painting of a swastika as a “craven and cowardly act of vandalism” that is “a matter of grave concern to us all.” Price’s statement clearly condemned the act, and offered empathy and solidarity with the Jewish community who the symbol was likely meant to attack. At Cornell last month, Ryan Lombardi, the vice president for student & campus life, issued a statement in which he expressed his “revulsion” at a swastika being marked in the snow there, noting that denouncing such acts is a “shared responsibility.”

Strong responses like these — which assert core community values, such as coexistence, tolerance and mutual respect  — can help campus communities heal, rather than further divide. Such responses can and should also acknowledge the importance of protecting free speech and make unequivocally clear that standing against hate does not weaken support for free speech, nor for the breadth of diverse political opinions to which all campuses should strive.

Campus leaders aren’t the only ones who need to respond better, of course. Faculty sometimes struggle to know how to address incidents in class. Residential assistants need more training on how to respond, particularly because dormitories are often the site of hate incidents. But there is no substitute for an appropriate reaction from the highest levels of campus leadership.

In the wake of these incidents, campus communities look to their leaders to provide a robust affirmation that hateful symbols and messages are as much detested by them, as they are by the groups who have been targeted. An attack against one of us — the best of these messages imply — is an attack against us all. Especially when hate speech so deliberately targets symbolic free speech spaces, it is all the more important that campus leaders be clear, consistent and convincing on these matters.

Particularly amid a rise in hate-motivated violence, and deliberate efforts by White supremacist groups to recruit on campuses, some college leaders have grasped the importance of encompassing these ideas in their statements, but others clearly need more encouragement. As the Anti-Defamation League’s Oren Segal tweeted during a recent spate of anti-Semitic hate incidents, this moment will be defined not by the bomb threats, cemetery desecrations or swastikas, but “by how we all responded.”

If hate hasn’t come to your campus yet, there’s a decent chance it will show up soon. History will be the judge of how we all respond.

Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss is an education and sociology professor at American University. Dr. Jonathan Friedman is the project director for Campus Free Speech at PEN America.

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