Hate speech. Recently there’s been discussion in the media, questioning the First Amendment and the fact that it allows for hate speech. According to an article in the Washington Times on Thursday, 51% of Americans think that the First Amendment should be rewritten and 48% think that hate speech should be illegal. Those are significant numbers.
On November 1, the National Review published an article about the University of Michigan. Before very recently, the University had a “Bias Response Team” which was tasked with investigating incidents of racism, sexism, homophobia or any other type of hostility towards marginalized groups on campus. However, the public University is now disbanding the team after being sued by Speech First, Inc.
The case began in June of last year against the school’s anti-harassment policy and escalated when the Department of Justice issued a statement that the policy was “unconstitutional because it offers no clear, objective definitions of the violations.”
After over a year, the settlement was reached last month after the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Bias Response Team “acts by way of implicit threat of punishment and intimidation to quell speech.”
According to the article, in the original statement from last year, Justice Department spokesman Devin O’Malley said, “Our nation’s public universities and colleges were established to promote diversity of thought and robust debate, so we must not accept when they instead use their authority to stifle these principles on their campuses. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is committed to promoting free speech on college campuses, and the Department is proud to have played a role in the numerous campus free speech victories this year.”
As a result of the settlement, the University dissolved its bias response team and instead created a campus climate support team, which can still offer support by advocating for people who experience marginalized hate speech without having disciplinary functions.
Reading this article made me think back to those Washington Times statistics. A good number of people think hate speech is wrong and the Department of Justice is telling us that it’s unconstitutional to punish people for it. For me, the fact that the statement is coming from the Trump Administration makes me even more skeptical of what’s being said. But in the end I do think free speech is really important and that it’s tricky to try to change the rules.
I agree that hate speech is a huge problem in our country and I think it’s ridiculous that public universities like this one are in situations where legal action needs to be taken against their anti-harassment policies, but I’m concerned about what other speech might be put into question if hate speech is actually outlawed. It sounds good when we’re talking about racism and sexism towards kids in college, but how do we decide what’s okay and what’s not? What about criticism of public officials and the government? I’m not saying hate speech should ever be okay, but I think censorship is a slippery slope and we should take our steps carefully.