Collegiate Calls To Punish Hate Speech

All across the country, college professors and students have demanded the punishment of those who use hate speech. In late November, nearly thirty Boston College faculty members demanded that their administration “immediately adopt a zero-tolerance policy against hate speech.” Similarly, in early November, more than 500 people signed a student petition demanding that the university “assure that all students receive a campus, classroom, and community experience free of hostilities” on Duke University’s campus. This is hardly a new phenomena. Back in 2006, a student leader at Penn State wrote the following in an article in his school’s newspaper: “‘We support any and all university policies that prohibit intolerant actions against any student on this campus,’ said Watson, adding that hate speech was not protected by the constitution.” Several months before the publication of this statement, Penn State was sued for having constitutionally vague policies restricting students’ speech.


Hate Speech vs Free Speech?

Is hate speech protected by the First Amendment? As the First Amendment Center points out, only a select few forms of expression fall outside of constitutionally protected speech. Additionally, even when somebody is accused of engaging in this small category of unprotected speech, such as defamation, it is extremely difficult to prove guilt in such cases. Hate speech – which is defined as “speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups” – does not fall into this unprotected category.


Criminalizing offensive speech goes against the entire ethos of the First Amendment. As a whole, the Bill of Rights was designed to ensure that the government could not seize certain inalienable rights of its citizens. The First Amendment explicitly makes sure that the expression of anti-status quo, minority viewpoints could not be punished. A nation that lacks free speech rights enables a tyranny of the majority to reign supreme, and everyone that holds beliefs contrary to the majority’s way of thinking can be silenced and punished.


Additionally, the whole premise of the First Amendment is that individuals are empowered to think as they wish and speak as they think. Practically speaking, the speakers in a conversation are empowered to say what they desire, and the listeners are charged with the task of continuing to converse or departing from the conversation if they feel they must. If, however, offensive speech were to be criminalized, the listeners would then be in the position of power to dictate the content of the conversation. In this case, speakers must, with the fear of punishment, temper their speech to ensure that the listeners always approve of their content.


Nevertheless, private universities are legally able to censor all forms of speech as they wish, since they are not government entities. However, a campus that disallows offensive speech simultaneously disallows the development of knowledge. Students can only properly test their ideas through critical discussion and challenging viewpoints. After all, knowledge is the byproduct of pitting ideas, no matter how disagreeable they are, against one another; bias is the byproduct of not allowing one’s views to be tested.