Photo credit: Jennifer Moo via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

Free Speech or Hate Speech? Congress Debates College Censorship


Sparked by the passage of a recent Wisconsin law, a House joint subcommittee met last week to discuss the limits of free speech on college campuses. The law in question would allow administrators to suspend or even expel students who were found engaging in “indecent, profane, boisterous, obscene, unreasonably loud or other disorderly conduct that interferes with the free expression of others.”

According to the House Oversight Committee’s website, the official purpose of the hearing was:

  • To identify the harms of infringing on the right to free speech on college campuses.
  • To explore recommendations on how to encourage and protect First Amendment rights, as well as intellectual and ideological diversity, on college campuses.
  • To understand administrators’ concerns about public safety and controversial speakers on campus, which sometimes lead to unconstitutional restrictions on free speech.

This bipartisan discussion comes on the heels of continued censorship of conservative speakers on America’s college campuses. Based on incidents ranging from the administrative shutdown and the threat of arrest of Ben Shapiro at DePaul University in November, to full scale riots and the shutdown of a Milo Yiannopoulos event at UC Berkeley in February, it is abundantly clear that free speech is under assault on campus today.

During the subcommittee hearing, numerous people from varying political and professional backgrounds testified, and although they all approached the subject from different angles, they all agreed on the central tenet that an open dialogue must be created and protected on college campuses. Dr. Michael Zimmerman of Evergreen State College summarized the sentiments of those testifying when he stated:

I believe unreservedly in the transformational power of ideas. But for those ideas to be truly powerful, they have to be fully understood and freely adopted and, in part, that means that alternative viewpoints have to be understood as well. This can only occur when we listen, truly listen to one another, and especially listen to those with whom we disagree. College and university campuses should not be the only place in society where this happens, but they absolutely must be one place where it does.

Can Free Speech Be Too Free?

Although those testifying were generally in agreement with the attitude of Dr. Zimmerman, some members of the House articulated a much different perspective for what free speech really means. One of the most vocal detractors present at Thursday’s hearing was Stacey Plaskett, the House delegate from the Virgin Islands. During the testimony of Ben Shapiro, Plaskett interjected and expressed concerns not only about the censoring of conservatives on campuses, but also about how free speech was negatively affecting minority students on campus as well. Plaskett stated:

I know that we’re discussing free speech, free speech is important, but I think that it would be inclusive for us to discuss this not just in the context of how it affects conservative speech and conservative students, but how it affects all students. I think we are doing the American public a disservice when we only talk about one side of the coin and not the other.

Plaskett went on to describe incidents of hateful speech and actions that had recently occurred on college campuses, most notably the case of Taylor Dumpston at American University. From this context, Plaskett went on to argue that free speech should have limitations in order to protect students from types of speech that could cause them harm.

This conception of what freedom of speech really means is the fundamental justification for speech codes and the censorship of speech on college campuses today. Speech restriction advocates such as Plaskett excuse the disruptive and often destructive actions taking place to silence speakers by painting such speakers as promulgators of “hate speech” who need to be silenced for the good of the student body.

However, this concept of hate speech has been used to justify a particularly insidious attack on the First Amendment rights of students in recent years. The American Bar Association defines hate speech as “speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.” In the name of shutting down this type of expression, college students, professors and administrators alike have taken actions to intimidate and ban speakers on campuses in order to drown out discourse on topics they deem hateful.

While eliminating hateful rhetoric may sound good in theory, the problem, as Shapiro astutely pointed out in his testimony, is that hate speech is subjective and varies from person to person. What I deem hateful, you may deem rational. So, who is to be the final adjudicator on what counts or doesn’t count as hate speech? University administrators have attempted to fill such a role — only to further reveal their leftist biases.

A Free Society Requires Freedom of Speech

So what is the solution? Like many other fundamental political questions, the answer can be found in the writings of the American Founding Fathers, in this case Benjamin Franklin. Franklin wrote in 1737:

Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government: When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved…

Franklin was correct: free speech and open debate are central to a well functioning society, and nowhere must these founding tenets be more firmly upheld than on college campuses. College is a place for students to be challenged; a place for one’s beliefs to be questioned and their foundations to be tested. Unfortunately, nowadays college has become instead a place to be indoctrinated; a place where one learns to regurgitate pre-approved points of view and shout down those with whom one disagrees.

How does this bode for the future state of discourse in the United States? How are we students to debate and discuss the most important topics of the day if every word we utter is threatened by administrative intimidation and accusations of bigotry? How am I to discuss transgender individuals joining the military if any dissent suddenly makes me “transphobic”? How am I to speak about Black Lives Matter if even the vocalization of the words “black on black crime” or “disproportional single motherhood” instantly turns me into a racist?

Without the freedom to openly and honestly discuss sensitive or controversial issues without fear, students — and Americans — are no longer actually free. There is a reason America’s Founding Fathers put the freedom of speech in the very first amendment of our Bill of Rights.

If someone has something bigoted or ignorant to say, let them say it, and let all of us prove them wrong with our own speech. This is the correct way to address hateful speech: win the battle of ideas because truth will prevail. The more voices that join the conversation and the healthier our discourse becomes, the better off we become as a nation. Supporting the free speech rights of a neo-Nazi or Klu Klux Klan member does not mean one supports their beliefs, but rather that one is confident one can defeat them intellectually in open debate.

Are restrictive campus speech codes simply the result of good intentions gone awry, or are they indicative of the Left’s fear that, in an open marketplace, their ideas will simply fall short?

Photo credit: Jennifer Moo via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

Erik Halvorson

Erik Halvorson is a regular contributor to and a student at Hillsdale College.

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