Hate speech proposal falls flat

By Matt Tievsky

Last Tuesday, The Chicago Maroon reported on homophobic comments made at the Mr. University pageant. The Maroon staff also published an editorial calling on the University administration to “strictly enforce punishments against those who engage in such behavior.” The “behavior” the Maroon has in mind is “discriminatory, offensive behavior,” and the editorial specifically includes “homophobic actions and speech.”

The Maroon’s concern with the detrimental effects of hate speech should be lauded. Nevertheless, its proposed policy is a poor idea. How would such a policy be written and enforced without subjecting students to unpredictable prosecution? Would it prohibit “hate speech” that derides the rich, the physically unattractive, or fraternity members? How are we to decide which classes of people would be protected without producing a policy so arbitrary as to be inimical to justice?

How would “hate speech” be distinguished from speech that is valid even though, as the Maroon fears, it is “offensive” to some students and makes them feel “unwelcome.” How are we to treat a law student who defends sodomy prohibitions, a biology student who claims that sexual preference is not at all determined by one’s genome, or a sociology student who claims that homosexual couples are less fit than heterosexual couples to raise children?

Moreover, why does the Maroon staff place so little faith in the sort of freedoms that we enjoy in society at large, thanks to the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States? If a nation as a whole can abide “hate speech,” why cannot a university do the same?

Finally, the proposal is flawed for a reason that even the Maroon staff should agree with. The Maroon is careful to point out that, “It is not the University’s role to rid students of all prejudices.” What, then, is the rationale behind the Maroon’s proposed policy? As the editorial states, “All members of the University community should feel wanted and secure on campus.” In other words, with respect to homophobia (among other forms of hatred), the aim of the Maroon’s proposed policy is not to eliminate homophobia itself, but manifestations of homophobia, which inhibit homosexuals from feeling “wanted and secure.”

I propose that the Maroon itself is guilty (albeit unintentionally) in the same way as those students whose actions the Maroon criticizes. The Maroon has given a voice to homophobes, spreading their message to hundreds of individuals at the University who otherwise would not have been aware of the comments made at the pageant. If the Maroon is for the prohibition of the communication of those attitudes, the staff’s indignation should apply to anyone who perpetrates such speech, including individuals who do not actually hold the attitudes themselves. Whether homosexual students personally heard the comments at the Mr. University pageant or learned of them through the Maroon, they are not any more likely to feel “wanted and secure.”

By the staff’s logic, then, the Maroon should not only have abstained from reporting the incident at the Mr. University pageant, it should have a prohibition on any such reporting in the future. The Maroon staff might defend itself by pointing out the good that its reporting accomplished: The campus is more aware of the existence of homophobia at the University of Chicago. Those of us worried by such intolerance will be motivated to take action against it.

I would agree with such a defense, and it is for precisely that reason that I support the right to engage in “hate speech.” We can only act against homophobia and other forms of hatred if we are aware that certain individuals possess these attitudes. Silencing these people will not change their minds. (It may make them more fervent in their beliefs by breeding resentment against those who suppress them.) What the Maroon proposes is to leave us in blissful ignorance of the hatred that exists on campus, stripping us of the means to counter it. Instead, let homophobes, racists, and others speak their minds. Let the Maroon speak of what these individuals say. And then let us speak out in response, to convince them that they are wrong.