Special Vulnerabilities, Unique Concerns: Regulating Hate Speech on University Campuses

By Russell, Dennis | Communications and the Law, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Special Vulnerabilities, Unique Concerns: Regulating Hate Speech on University Campuses


Russell, Dennis, Communications and the Law


Perhaps the most problematic free expression flashpoint to create a challenge to established notions of tolerance in the United States involves the resurfacing of hate speech on university campuses. Since the mid-1980s, signs of overt bigotry have become apparent, often in the form of hate-filled language, graffiti, leaflets, fliers, drawings, posters, letters, fraternity pranks, and racial brawls. A number of universities reacted to these incidents by adopting codes and policies that prohibit racist, sexist, homophobic, or anti-Semitic expression on campus. These campus regulations reflect the thinking that the greater good is served by banning bigoted expression in an age in which personal vilification is deemed socially unacceptable.(1)

At the core of the hate-speech issue is the moral dilemma of whether a democratic society in the late twentieth century should tolerate expression that is demeaning and insensitive to minorities. According to Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon, the American legal system suffers from a "hyper-individualism" that has created a "rights industry" in which accompanying responsibilities often are ignored. Glendon said that Americans tend to speak of absolute rights, despite common restrictions on property and personal rights. From Glendon's perspective, the free-speech rights of people who vilify minorities are not absolute, but instead carry moral responsibilities that cannot be readily dismissed.(2)

Ultimately, there is a moral seriousness at the center of the hate-speech issue which makes it worthy of extensive examination. Unlike some First Amendment issues, hate speech involves more than symbols and abstract discourse; instead, vilification of minorities impinges on human emotions, sensitivities, and psyches. The implications of stigmatization make a climate of tolerance for hate speech all the more problematic.

In fact, the problematic nature of hate speech is underscored by the fact that left-wing organizations--those that have been strong advocates of civil liberties and the expression of minority views--have endorsed adoption of campus hate-speech regulations. Some members of the left contend that the harm that abusive speech inflicts upon people justifies restricting the First Amendment rights of speakers.(3) Former New York Times reporter Lee Dembart finds the left's position ironic since many "previous assaults on speech have come from the right, which repeatedly in this century has tried to suppress what it considered dangerous views."(4) Dembart warned that people with minority views should be careful of supporting efforts to silence controversial expression, adding that minorities owe their active political movements in large measure to their freedom to communicate.(5) "If speech can be banned because it offends someone," Dembart said, "how long will it be before the messages of these groups are themselves found offensive?"(6)

Proponents of campus hate-speech regulations argue that imposed tolerance for minorities is necessary to achieve the goal of eliminating prejudice in American universities.(7) This viewpoint is based on a philosophy that there are politically correct (PC)(8) expressions on issues of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual preference that will be tolerated on campus, and, conversely, certain expressions that violate the PC concept. Philosophically, the PC position is that a hostile environment for minorities undermines their ability to gain an equal education.(9) Politically, PC is influenced by Marxism in the sense of attempting to redistribute power from the privileged class (that is, white American males) to the oppressed masses.(10) Intellectually, PC rejects the notion of hierarchy in society, and thus calls for a multicultural approach to education and campus life.(11) According to Molefi Asante, chairperson of African-American studies at Temple University, "There are only two positions: either you support multiculturalism in American education, or you support the maintenance of white supremacy.

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Special Vulnerabilities, Unique Concerns: Regulating Hate Speech on University Campuses
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