FIRE Cautions University of North Carolina System against Implementing Hate Speech Policy

By February 16, 2009

Today, FIRE sent a letter to University of North Carolina President Erskine Bowles and the UNC Study Commission to Review Student Codes of Conduct as They Relate to Hate Crimes arguing against the implementation of a system-wide hate speech code. Bowles formed the study commission following the discovery of racist comments painted in North Carolina State University’s Free Expression Tunnel after President Barack Obama’s victory last November. In FIRE’s letter, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley argues that new prohibitions against hate speech on campus would likely violate the First Amendment rights of students and are unnecessary in light of existing prohibitions against racial harassment and true threats.

After surveying the applicable case law establishing that the First Amendment protects deeply offensive even racist speech on campus, Creeley argues that more speech, rather than simple censorship, is the best response to ugly incidents like that at North Carolina State University (NCSU). Creeley writes:

[T]he First Amendment is designed in part to protect precisely that speech which a community finds most disagreeable, most offensive, and most antithetical to that community’s values. This protection stems directly from a deep, abiding respect for the intelligence of the American citizen. Rather than allow government censors to decide which ideas, no matter how hateful, reach our ears, the First Amendment entrusts adult citizens with the power to judge the merit of speech for themselves, answering only to the dictates of their own conscience. In his seminal treatise On Liberty, political philosopher John Stuart Mill noted that in the marketplace of ideas, it is through exposure to falsehoods that we learn what is true. Once people no longer have to defend their beliefs and values, those ideas lose their vitality, becoming merely rote formulas instead of deep, living, and creative convictions.

Rather than prove the need for hate speech codes, then, the reaction to the ugly, racist speech discovered in North Carolina State University’s Free Expression Tunnel demonstrates just the opposite. Confronted with speech with which they strongly disagreed, most students and administrators answered not with unthinking censorship but with more speech. This is as it should be: students must be trusted with the ability to evaluate and respond to ideas on their own. Instituting a policy that simply silences reprehensible speech through censorship and punishment would deprive UNC students of the opportunity to learn from the many lessons offered by directly confronting hate and ignorance and the opportunity to change minds via dialogue. Further, teaching students to reflexively rely on official censorship when dealing with deeply offensive speech is infantilizing and misleading. In the world outside of UNC, students will not enjoy the false luxury of freedom from offense.

In arguing against adopting a hate speech code on UNC campuses, FIRE joins the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation, which reached much the same conclusion in its own letter to Bowles last December. We hope that Bowles makes the right decision, and we will keep you posted regarding the outcome.

Schools: University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill