How Offensive Speech Gets Punished

By November 13, 2007

You know that Voltairean line, I hate what you have to say, but I’ll support your right to say it? That’s a good model for what we should do when somebody says something we dislike. That is, if somebody says something objectionable enough that you feel offended, you are free to tell the person that you hate it.

If you’re on a college campus, however, don’t rely on administrators to intervene by punishing the speaker. Relying on the university’s power to punish or “reeducate” seldom makes the speaker any more tolerant or sensitive, and it seldom produces a healthier community.

Often the most effective punishment is not coercive but social. First of all, if you keep offending your friends, after a while you won’t have many (or any) friends. In that situation, you’re likely to become more sensitive pretty quickly. In this democracy, we tolerate an awful lot of things that we dislike or even hate. But a friendship is not necessarily bound by toleration; we should actually like our friends. Good friends can be great sparring partners, as in the “iron sharpens iron” metaphor, but at some point if your friend is too disagreeable, the friendship ends.

The same principle is at work for acquaintances, folks you might see day to day but do not consider your friends. Nobody says you have to sit next to somebody you dislike at meals, or talk to the people you dislike, or even keep from frowning at them. If somebody has been so offensive to you that you don’t even want to smile at him or her, and if a lot of people feel the same way, that person is going to get the message rather quickly: he or she has committed some significant social no-no.

And you can do more. If you don’t even know the person, but he or she has said something so objectionable that you feel the need to take action, go ahead—there is a lot, within the law, available for you to do. Fight offensive speech with more speech, we like to say at FIRE. (Just make sure the person actually said it.) Publish your own view in as many legal ways as you can find, all over campus and in media beyond the campus. Or go even farther, and denounce the view you dislike in all those places, to all your friends, and even to strangers all over campus. Pretty soon, if your point of view has merit, the person who said what you dislike will experience the social consequences of having said disagreeable things. If your point of view turns out not to have merit, then you might learn something, too.

At FIRE, I sometimes find myself in the disagreeable situation of defending expression that I dislike. I’m not defending it from any of these social punishments, which can be quite severe, as many people quickly learn. When I dislike a poster or a cartoon or something that offends me, I am glad to see that people who agree with me are letting others know (sometimes even under threats of legal action by those who can’t stand the attention). But I am defending the expression I dislike from the coercive power of a college or university that presumes to take punishment into its own hands.

Social sanctions are plenty, and they are effective. University punishment for controversial expression, in contrast, is often unconstitutional, invasive of one’s private thoughts, out of proportion to the offense, and presented as though there is only one point of view—the university’s view—about whatever has been said.

Offensive speech can be sanctioned effectively by individuals and organizations in the community doing what they already have the right to do, not by administrators who claim to speak for the whole community.