There’s a World of Difference Between Free Speech and Hate Speech

People march at the University of California, Berkeley, to protest the appearance of Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos, on February 1, 2017.

The recent appearance of a controversial speaker at Georgetown University, where I’m a student, bubbled over into a communitywide debate that pitted the social merits of free speech against the harm of hate speech.

Nonie Darwish, a prominent anti-Islam writer and speaker who has called for the annihilation of Islam, appeared at a forum sponsored by the Georgetown University College Republicans, or GUCR, to promote her new book. The event sparked divisive debate on campus, as many progressive students condemned the GUCR for giving Darwish a platform to spew her hateful views. The controversy even prompted a member of the GUCR board to resign in protest of Darwish’s appearance.

Despite angry protests, however, the event proceeded and Darwish spoke. But the controversy didn’t remain confined to campus. Local and national media chimed in to attack pro-Muslim students for protesting. To be honest, I was surprised that what seemed to only be important to students at my school mushroomed into a much larger issue and received such attention. However, I now understand that what happened at Georgetown serves as just one example of many similar conversations occurring at universities across the country. I do not believe that colleges should censor all hate speech by individuals, but expending university resources to invite and actively promote a speaker of hate is wrong.

Free speech vs. hate speech

Universities should not censor any individual’s speech, but they should acknowledge the roots of biases. Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union make this point:

Bigoted speech is symptomatic of a huge problem in our country; it is not the problem itself. Everybody, when they come to college, brings with them the values, biases and assumptions they learned while growing up in society, so it’s unrealistic to think that punishing speech is going to rid campuses of the attitudes that gave rise to the speech in the first place. Banning bigoted speech won’t end bigotry, even if it might chill some of the crudest expressions. The mindset that produced the speech lives on and may even reassert itself in more virulent forms.

While individual speech should be protected, however, university-sponsored speaker events differ from individual rights of free expression. Universities should be cognizant of not expending their resources on individuals who discriminate against members of their student bodies and encompass the antithesis of diversity, tolerance, and acceptance. After all, if universities serve to enrich the minds of society’s young people, then how would a speaker of hate benefit anyone’s education?

In addition to the protest at Georgetown, recent protests regarding controversial speakers have occurred at the University of California, Berkeley, and Middlebury College, among others. In each case, news stories highlight an ongoing public debate that pits free speech against hate speech. Even politicians have joined in the arguments, with some conservatives waging a war on so-called political correctness. They state that those who protest hate speech are ultimately promoting censorship as a means of controlling and avoiding speech with which they do not agree—speech that is free under the Constitution.

The idea of censorship is troubling, but painting the anti-hate speech movement as part of an attempt to ignore reality avoids its nuance. Confronting hate speech is not about controlling the conversation but rather about promoting tolerance and inclusivity. And contrary to the sensationalized attention that the issue receives in the media, most college students do not feel that the anti-hate movement puts their right to free speech under attack.

A recent study by Gallup, the Knight Foundation, and the Newseum Institute found that 73 percent of college students think that their right to free speech is “very secure or secure.” Moreover, a majority—71 percent—of students believe that policies universities have adopted “to discourage speech and behavior that could be seen as offensive or insensitive toward certain groups” have “been about right.” Interestingly, 41 percent of black students felt that their college had “not gone far enough,” while only 15 percent of white students agreed. This gap shows that black students likely feel more of an impact when colleges work to prevent hateful expressions, such as racial slurs. The anti-hate speech movement seeks to help these students. While I don’t advocate for policies that restrict individuals’ rights of free speech, the underlying theme of these policies—when applied to university-sponsored events—demonstrates a goal of compassion and understanding.

Hate speech, when actively promoted by a university, is outside the bounds of free speech and should therefore exist beyond political sides. On the other hand, both sides should be wary of censorship. Unfortunately, however, the issue of speech on college campuses has become politicized and exaggerated.

Fostering growth, tolerance, and understanding

Students who protest university-sponsored events that they view are promoting hateful speech are often criticized for being unwilling to hear the other side’s opinion. The idea that students work to suppress the views of others ironically works to delegitimize those students’ views and concerns in favor of perpetuating the problems of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.

There is no gold standard for distinguishing between hate speech and difference of opinion. Healthy, productive discussions are necessary to foster growth, tolerance, and understanding. Universities should try more to invite speakers who bring opinions that do not ostracize groups of people or religions but instead provide rational arguments based in truth. It is important that universities do not censor individuals’ speech—even if some may consider that speech offensive. But it isn’t conducive to learning for a university to actively promote and support bigoted ideas by inviting speakers known for their hateful, unsubstantiated views.

I question why the GUCR chose to invite someone without any academic credentials on her subject but known for her anti-Islam views. And I further wonder why the group chose to continue with its event after Muslim students and their allies pleaded against it. Perhaps the greatest challenge in issues such as this is how often the line between free speech and hate speech gets blurred. But by considering the debate in two different lights—one being censorship and the other being university-promoted speech—as well as by depoliticizing the issue, an attitude of empathy can be possible.

Critics of protesters’ pleas should step back and evaluate the roots of students’ grievances and the roots of the hateful opinions rather than delegitimize students’ concerns and desire for safe, welcoming environments. Why must there be a free speech and hate speech side? Why can’t there simply be respect? Empathy for these very real feelings can make Georgetown and other universities what they should be—positive places for all students to debate and learn respectfully.

Becca DiPietro is an intern with Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.