Hate speech is the cost of free speech

As students of the University of Maryland College Park, we were saddened to hear of Lt. Richard W. Collins III's death. A 23-year-old student at Bowie State University, Lt. Collins was visiting a friend in College Park when Sean Urbanski, a UMD student, allegedly stabbed him at a bus stop. An investigation into Mr. Urbanski's online presence reportedly revealed he was a member of a white supremacist Facebook group, casting the stabbing in a racist light; Lt. Collins was black, and Mr. Urbanski is white. Authorities are investigating the death as a potential hate crime, and the university has taken a few unsettling steps in the interim.

Wallace Loh, president of the University of Maryland College Park, commissioned a bias-response team to address instances of hateful speech and actions. He also pumped $100,000 into the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and promised a task force for review of university policies related to hate speech and hate crimes. Mr. Loh said he hopes to "engage the campus on issues at the intersection of free speech and hate speech," which is cause for worry.

Driven in part by their restive student bodies, many college administrations around the country have introduced speech codes to their universities. While UMD and Mr. Loh have long refused them, Mr. Loh's solutions could nevertheless end up restricting free speech on campus.

The constitution doesn't distinguish between hate speech and free speech. And while we would hope that students would self-censor their comments for decency's sake, to mandate it at the administrative level endangers freedom of expression. Hate speech is broadly defined as an attack on a person based on their innate characteristics, which could be interpreted to include speech that merely offends. Where do we draw the line? Once one strain of speech loses its protection, other types will follow. Hate speech is the cost of free speech, and that cost is unavoidable.

Yet many student bodies fail to grasp this, demanding swift and bold action from their respective administrations following examples of hate speech. Ithaca College Pesident Tom Rochon and Yale University lecturer Erika Christakis were both forced to resign amid protests from students who determined the educators' approach to hate and bias did not adequately conform to their own. College administrators, when faced with accusations of being lax in standards of equality, are effectively held at gunpoint in the court of public opinion, which could explain Mr. Loh's response to this putative hate crime.

Mr. Loh's plan for the bias response team is worrisome. Similar teams at a number of U.S. universities (there are more than 100) investigate offenses that run an absurdly broad gamut. (In February of last year, for example, a University of Michigan hall director reported to that school's bias team the existence of a snow penis on the grounds.) These bias response teams largely operate in the shadows with little accountability for silencing expression, and they encourage every student around them to become an individual arbiter of justice. There is little legal standard for hate speech, and in that vacuum, students will themselves decide what does and does not offend, and report their findings. In practice, this leads to a misuse of campus resources on bogus, internecine hate-speech investigations and fosters a culture of mistrust.

Distinguishing between words that are truly threatening — such as fighting words, which can directly lead to violence and are not protected by the First Amendment — and constitutionally-protected free speech is vital. But creating new administrative bodies to regulate self-expression, however odious, endangers those who contribute productively to what Mr. Loh called a "marketplace of ideas."

Banning so-called hate speech would only suppress public expression of hateful views. Doing so at UMD, while likely to draw support from the student body, would do nothing to address the root of the problem. Instead of stifling those views, they should be debated. Given the opportunity to stand on their own false merits, they will collapse — no prohibition required.

Hate speech and hate crimes are a pertinent issue to college students and the country, but our reaction to hate crimes and bias shows our strength of character as we combat these problems with compassion and reason. Knee-jerk reactions and forced self-censoring systems are no way to address hate. Civil discussion is.

James Whitlow (jwhitlow1994@gmail.com) and Tom Hart (tom.c.hart95@gmail.com) are students at the University of Maryland.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
34°