January 9, 2015

Land of the free?

On January 6, the Committee on Free Expression released a report addressing the issue of freedom of expression on campus. The committee consists of seven professors at the University who were appointed in July to draft a statement that articulates the University’s “commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the community.” The statement itself says that the role of the University in fostering freedom of expression should be to help members of the community debate “in an effective and responsible manner.” We agree with this central idea—that the University must protect open discourse. However, this report lacks clarity on what constitutes “effective and responsible” discourse. The University needs to clearly differentiate hate speech and offensive speech. Hate speech is defined as “speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits,” according to the American Bar Association. The report’s failure to clearly define hate speech implies that all speech short of unlawful harassment is acceptable, no matter how vile or cruel. While it is important for students to challenge each other’s opinions, this should not come at the expense of students’ mental well-being or safety.

The report specifies that the University can still regulate speech that is unlawful, libelous, or threatening, calling these categories “narrow exceptions” to a policy of general free expression. However, labeling these types of speech “narrow exceptions” minimizes the seriousness and harmfulness of this kind of speech. What is more concerning are the University’s apparent inconsistencies on this issue. In an e-mail sent on November 24 in response to the false hacking incident, Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Karen Warren Coleman reiterated the University’s “commitment to a diverse campus free from harassment and discrimination.” Given the University’s stated commitment to eradicating hateful speech on campus in the past, it is disappointing that it has failed to maintain this strong stance in its most recent report. Condemning hate speech would not have detracted from a strong defense of free speech—it would have simply clarified it.

On December 12, President Zimmer and Provost Eric Isaacs detailed new steps the University will be taking to address issues of diversity and inclusion, including the establishment of two new campus climate surveys focused on gaining insight on issues pertaining to cases of sexual misconduct and underrepresented groups on campus. Given the fearful climate that many students have cited in the past few months, the University must take the issues of diversity and inclusion into account when writing about the importance of free speech. It is not enough for the University to simply reiterate its commitment to free speech; it must also discuss its nuances and where the lines between acceptable and unacceptable speech fall.

Freedom of expression is essential to a productive and creative learning environment. This means students must be prepared to listen to opinions that differ from their own. Speech that challenges commonly held assumptions can be beneficial. Hate speech benefits no one because it seeks only to tear down, not to build up. The University needs to directly address hate speech for the good of productive discourse.

In their January 6 e-mail, Zimmer and Isaacs said that this report would be a part of an ongoing discussion about the role of free expression at the University. In order to forge an inclusive campus climate, the University must maintain a consistent commitment to eradicating hate speech and harassment in campus discussion. Free expression and a campus climate of inclusivity are not mutually exclusive. Rather, fostering a culture of inclusivity will serve to increase the quality and diversity of discourse on campus.

—The Maroon Editorial Board