More speech, not less, and certainly not hate speech
Published: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 07:02
In Friday's article "Advocacy group: Tufts one of worst colleges for free speech," the Daily cited the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's (FIRE) condemnation of Tufts as one of the 12 worst colleges for free speech. The article quotes the president of FIRE, Greg Lukianoff, arguing that Tufts "has consistently adopted policies and practices that censor student speech".
Beside the fact that FIRE's ranking of Tufts is old news, I'd like to point out a consistent failure of the Daily and those who get heated about free speech at Tufts. Yes, we can all agree that free speech is important. But conflating the ability to engage in open and intellectual discourse with the supposed "right" to hate speech is problematic and counterproductive for us all.
Friday's article introduced us to the issue of free speech as it relates to open dialogue at Tufts with an allusion to discussions of the Israeli−Palestinian conflict and even to the debate over whether dining halls should go trayless. When it came down to the issues at hand, however, very little was actually explained. FIRE's source of criticism stems from the university's actions in the wake of the oft−mentioned Primary Source incident. In 2006 the Primary Source was criticized for publishing a Christmas carol parody, "O Come, All Ye Black Folk," as well as an article on Islamo−Fascism.
Whereas discussion of the merits of affirmative action policies and multiculturalism are perhaps appropriate and valuable for educating people on a variety of issues, the Primary Source did not in this instance attempt to present the issues fairly. The Islamo−Fascism article singled out Muslim students on campus, and the Christmas carol parody specifically targeted 52 black freshmen in its verse, implying that each of the black students in the class of 2010 had been admitted under affirmative action policies and was thus undeserving of a Tufts education. This was a case of hate speech.
After student rallies and protests, a variety of options were considered by the administration. On the one hand, the individuals responsible for the articles could be punished; on the other, the publication could be punished. Ultimately the university chose to throw out the byline policy agreed upon by the Committee on Student Life (CSL), in effect recognizing the two pieces as protected free speech. University Lawrence President Bacow continues to cite his opinion that offensive speech should be combated with more speech, and not less. The findings of the Task Force on Freedom of Expression, which conversely argue that free speech is valuable but not by any means absolute, nonetheless draw attention to the heart of the issue.
Many people agree with President Bacow, calling for free speech to be the remedy to offensive speech. This may be a reference to Justice Louis Brandeis' opinion in Whitney v. California (1926), in which he called for "more speech, not enforced silence." This standpoint still fails to recognize the full problem. The idea that more speech can be used to combat hate speech operates on the assumption that all speech is equal. That is unrealistic. The truth is that the system in place in this country and at Tufts systematically disenfranchises individuals on a number of bases, including their race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc. (This is not a claim I expect I need to defend.)
Those who speak from positions of marginalization then encounter two distinct hurdles. First, in an admittedly racist system which treats discussions of racism and prejudice as an extreme taboo necessarily silenced, it's hard for anyone even to bring up the issues without being met with significant hostility and personal attacks. Second, the call for more speech places an undue burden on those targeted by hate speech to be constantly acting in their own defense. No, it was not the obligation of those 52 black freshmen to be forced to speak out and prove themselves as worthy, therefore justifying their admittance to Tufts. The call for more speech here serves only to further the privilege of the majority to say what they wish at the expense of those who are too often the victims of that same liberty.
To then argue why hate speech might be limited, I'd like to make two points based in the writings of Joshua Cohen, a professor at Stanford University. First, the fact is that there are already a number of situations in which free speech is limited. Cases such as shouting, "Fire!" in a crowded building or false advertising are already recognized and treated as unprotected speech. So that "slippery slope" of imposing limitations on free speech people refer to is already in play.
The fundamental issue here, however, is in the interests expressed. The goal of shouting, "Fire!" is to cause unnecessary chaos to the detriment of all those present. The basic interest in false advertising is to create profits for oneself at the expense of others. In terms of hate speech, the interests expressed are quite simple. While discussion of race and racial identity development might benefit all, hate speech benefits no one and contributes nothing to the intellectual discourse on race. Hate speech exists solely to incite hatred, resentment, and violence and is therefore not worthy of protection.
The second point has to do with the costs of speech. FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley was quoted in Friday's article defending the Primary Source's 2006 articles saying, "Hurt feelings are part of the human experience." This isn't necessarily a point I disagree with, but I do think it's an inappropriate argument against limiting free speech. It's very easy for most of us to cast aside our differences with others, though many take disagreements to heart.
Yet the hurt of hate speech is much greater than having someone tell you that you think going trayless is stupid. Hate speech rather degrades a person's humanity, worth and sense of self. It is not something easy to get over, and it is impossible to rationalize. It creates a hostile environment that perpetuates discrimination against traditionally marginalized groups, and free speech policies merely institutionalize the ability of people to hurt others. By arguing that hate speech should be protected under the umbrella of free speech, we are essentially arguing for one−sided discourse that benefits the perpetrators of hate speech.