FIRE Intern in ‘Tennesseean’ on Vanderbilt’s Online ‘Free Speech Zone’

By July 11, 2011

FIRE intern and Vanderbilt University student Kenny Tan published an op-ed in yesterday’s Tennessean, Nashville’s city newspaper, detailing the ways in which Vanderbilt’s "no hate speech" rule in an online forum contradicts Vanderbilt’s stated promises of encouraging academic debate through freedom of expression. In his op-ed, Kenny points out how critical open discourse is to education and how putting limitations on a purported "Free Speech Zone" is contrary to Vanderbilt’s ideals:

"Hate speech" is an ambiguous term often used to investigate and punish students for speech deemed insensitive about any person or group. But there is no "hate speech" exception to "free speech," for good reason: in a truly free marketplace of ideas, "hateful" speech need not be feared, since speech based on hate or prejudice is simply not convincing when people have a chance to rationally evaluate it. What better place for this process to take place than on a college campus? It’s not surprising, then, that Vanderbilt’s faculty manual grants faculty and students the right to express views that others may find offensive, unpopular or even racist.

Kenny’s op-ed pointed out that the administrators of the online forum in question, "Common Place," noted concerns that he raised on The Torch about this issue last month, and they asked members of the Vanderbilt community to participate in a discussion about them. Kenny writes:

That’s just what a university should do: Enrich the conversation, not shut it down.

Several people have posted thoughtful responses, mainly agreeing that a "hate speech" prohibition is unnecessary, particularly since comments on the forum are not anonymous and people can be held socially accountable for what they write, unlike on gossip websites.

(Of course, anonymous speech is protected under free speech principles, too, but that’s not an issue here.)

Kenny points out the chilling effect of a ban on "hate speech," arguing that such a ban could mislead students into believing that any speech that offends particular individuals or groups would lead to disciplinary action for the speaker. As we have pointed out consistently here at FIRE, putting unnecessary restrictions on campus speech serves to limit discussions instead of broadening students’ perspectives. Vanderbilt should be teaching its incoming students how to express themselves and learn from their peers, not discouraging discussion by suggesting that "hate speech" (however defined) should be silenced on a campus dedicated to free speech. 

We’re proud of Kenny’s op-ed, and we look forward to Vanderbilt’s resolution of this issue.

Schools: Vanderbilt University