A Critique of the Hate-Speech Policy

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Lawrence University promises academic freedom and inclusivity to its students, but it suppresses ideological diversity in numerous ways. The administration has allowed LUCC to deny recognition to the Young Americans for Freedom Chapter in 2019, fostered a culture that makes students unwilling to express moderate and conservative views, and implemented vague speech codes. This is culturally and legally problematic for Lawrence. The interim hate-speech policy enables the university to suppress a wide variety of speech beyond hate speech. If Lawrence does not change, anyone with dissenting views will become subject to censorship, enrollment will drop sharply, and the university may find itself entangled in legal disputes.

I don’t need to speculate that hate-speech policies will be used to shut down mainstream beliefs because the non-discrimination policy already has been used for this purpose. The Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) is the largest conservative student organization in the country. In 2019, the campus YAF chapter was denied recognition on the basis that its opposition to communism in the national charter violated the non-discrimination policy of Lawrence University. Let that sink in: according to LUCC, opposition to communism violates the discrimination policy of Lawrence University. There’s no question a hate-speech policy will be used by partisans to suppress mainstream political beliefs.

Vague speech codes also have a “chilling effect” on free expression, a phenomenon where individuals or groups refrain from engaging in expression for fear of violating the rules. The policy states that “Lawrence University defines hate speech as forms of expression (whether words or symbolic actions) that attack or use discriminatory language, or create an atmosphere of intimidation, harassment, or abuse, because of an actual or perceived identity group membership.” Because of the politically-exclusionary culture of our campus, any nuanced or conservative view seems to create “an atmosphere of intimidation” for the most sensitive among us. The “chilling effect” was cited in Reno v. ACLU​ (1997) when the Communications Decency Act, which criminalized the online transmission of “patently offensive” and “indecent” communications, was unanimously ruled unconstitutional because the law failed to define the terms “patently offensive” and “indecent”. Justice John Paul Stevens explained, “The vagueness of the CDA is a matter of special concern for two reasons. First, the CDA is a content based regulation of speech. The vagueness of such a regulation raises special First Amendment concerns because of its obvious chilling effect on free speech.” The hate-speech policy at Lawrence University will have a similar chilling effect on our campus.

While Lawrence is not a public institution, it claims to be a bastion of free expression and inclusivity, so it must be held to the standards that they themselves establish. Private institutions are not bound by the First Amendment (though Lawrence’s use of federal grants complicates their private status), but if Lawrence advertises itself as an inclusive place where free speech is protected, then they are contractually bound to respect that promise to its students. Otherwise, they are engaging in false advertising. Our academic freedom statement declares, “members of the Lawrence community are free to engage in, speak on, and write about scholarly research and creative activity without fear of censorship or retaliation. In the classroom, laboratory, and studio, teachers must be free to teach and students free to learn; we must be free to challenge each other’s beliefs, to explore new ideas and critically examine old ones, and to listen to others without disruption. Knowledge, skill, understanding, and creative expression are acquired through interactions that are often complex and even controversial. Although these interactions may at times cause discomfort, they may not be obstructed.” Speech codes obstruct free expression through biased enforcement and the “chilling effect”. The “Freedom of Speech 101 Toolkit” on the Lawrence website includes articles from the Boston Globe and Washington Post that both declare “There is no hate-speech exemption to the First Amendment,” as well as an article from the ACLU that states, “When schools shut down speakers who espouse bigoted views, they deprive their students of the opportunity to confront those views themselves. Such incidents do not shut down a single bad idea, nor do they protect students from the harsh realities of an often unjust world. Silencing a bigot accomplishes nothing except turning them into a martyr for the principle of free expression. The better approach, and the one more consistent with our constitutional tradition, is to respond to ideas we hate with the ideals we cherish.” Speech-codes are in direct conflict with the Freedom of Speech 101 Toolkit that Lawrence advertises. By not living up to these values, they are misleading prospective students. In addition, the non-discrimination policy states that “the University prohibits discrimination in admissions, its programs and activities, employment and advancement on the basis of … political affiliation…” By allowing LUCC to deny recognition to nationally-esteemed conservative organizations, Lawrence is violating its discimination policy. We must hold our university to its own standards of free expression and inclusivity to avoid illegal view-point discimination.

You might be thinking, “hate-speech rules are harmless because they only apply to genuinely hateful speech.” Oh, really? Ask yourself this: What is hate-speech and who can apply the rules fairly? Randomly select 100 people to determine whether the phrases “All Cops are Bad” and “There are only two genders” are hate-speech and their odds of achieving consensus will be lower than my odds of becoming LUCC President. In a community with speech codes, the biases and limitations of those enforcing the rules will prevail and many students will feel alienated from the community. We see the inevitable double standards play out when social media companies selectively ban the accounts of some leaders and not others. Granting administrators or LUCC the power to determine what is acceptable speech presumes that what brings us closer to the truth is not the free exchange of ideas, but the judgement of a few bureaucrats. Ask yourself if you want to give up your freedom of expression in exchange for the promise of never being offended.​ Speech codes teach students that they have a right to be free from offensive or uncomfortable ideas. This attitude remains with students after graduation and creates a society that is unable to confront differing opinions and eventually becomes complicit in its own censorship. If students on our nation’s campuses learn offensive speech can be banned, they will be more likely to tolerate the demands of the government to censor unwanted speech, which is far more perilous. If our nation forgets the importance of our First Amendment rights, we won’t realize we’ve lost them until it’s too late.

I propose that Lawrence reaffirm its commitment to free expression and inclusivity. Instead of a hate-speech policy, Lawrence should adopt the Chicago Statement, which states, “Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn . . . . [I]t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” The administration should also override all decisions made by LUCC that violate the academic freedom statement, including denials of recognition to conservative campus organizations. For each of us as members of the Lawrence community, we must commit ourselves to mutual respect, which is a voluntary act, not one that can be forced. We must listen to others before judging, especially when we are confronted with controversial ideas. Here are my recommendations for productive conversations. First, decide if now is the right time to talk. The passions of the moment can lead to animosity if you aren’t in the right state of mind. Second, be informed, state facts, ask difficult questions, and listen empathetically to the response. This is a more effective way to change minds than censorship and force. Third, acknowledge you are bothered by someone’s language and ask for clarification before getting angry. People aren’t always trying to hurt your feelings, and counter to conventional wisdom, being offended doesn’t make you right.

Fourth, learn what you can from someone’s perspective even if you disagree with it. It will broaden your understanding of others and make you a better communicator. I include myself in the receiving end of these suggestions because I too get frustrated and need to be reminded of good communication habits sometimes. I hope these arguments encourage the Lawrence community to be inclusive of all students’ freedom of expression so we can confront different points of view in ways that are compatible with our university’s mission and our nation’s constitution.