Portland State University Admins Demonstrate Support for Controversial Student Speech

By June 13, 2013

The Portland State Vanguard reported last week on a controversy at Portland State University (PSU) between PSU’s College Republicans and the school’s Muslim Students Association (MSA). The MSA and other students criticized two events sponsored by the College Republicans in May—a visiting speaker’s lecture and a movie screening—as being anti-Islam, and they asked the PSU administration to address their concerns. However, the university administrators, to their credit, took the opportunity to remind students that the First Amendment protects speech even when it is offensive or hurtful to some. 

The Vanguard gets to the heart of the matter:  "

We met with many of the people who were upset to let them know that we cannot stop an event because they find the content hurtful," said Aimee Shattuck, director of Student Activities and Leadership Programs. Shattuck explained that Supreme Court cases have set a precedent that the First Amendment applies to student organizations.

PSU President Wim Wiewel sent a letter to the student body reiterating this point:

Portland State University respects and supports your right to express your political and social views. Free speech — even when it is offensive — is protected by the First Amendment. In fact, valuing a robust debate of ideas is the underpinning of a liberal arts education at a public university. The best response to speech that is offensive is not to stifle the speaker but to answer with counter speech and dialogue.

We applaud President Wiewel’s clarity and commitment to freedom of expression.  PSU further demonstrated its understanding of the boundaries of free speech through its responses to students who tried to silence the College Republicans, rather than simply offering a counterpoint. One attendee of the movie screening uploaded to the internet a video of a student trying to interrupt the beginning of the screening by speaking over it; that student was asked to leave by a Campus Public Safety Officer. Further, College Republicans President Julia Rabadi told the Vanguard that the group’s event posters around campus are often ripped down or replaced with fliers that read "Stop being racist, sexist, douchebags." The Vanguard reports that the school is investigating students who were caught on camera defacing posters. As Rabadi remarks, "At this point, all of [the College Republicans'] issues are being addressed in some manner." 

But the MSA is less satisfied with the school’s responses to their concerns. MSA member Sadaf Assadi remarked on the conflict:

"Free speech is one thing, but hate speech is a completely different matter," Assadi said. 

While this sentiment is common, it is legally incorrect. With the exception of just a few narrowly defined categories of speech traditionally unprotected by the First Amendment, even highly offensive or upsetting speech is protected. Absent a true threat against someone or incitement to immediate violence or other illegal action, so-called "hate speech" does not fall into any of those unprotected categories and is, therefore, protected speech. The proper response to such speech, as President Wiewel points out, is not censorship, but further discussion of the topic.

MSA students protested that many College Republicans, including the group leaders, left the movie screening instead of engaging in a discussion with other students on whether the film in question appropriately portrayed Muslims and Islam. But while such discussion may be encouraged, students cannot be compelled to participate. With PSU administrators’ explicit commitment to keeping university space open for expression of all viewpoints, MSA is free to host its own event to share its members’ perspective on the College Republicans’ presentations, or on any other concern.

FIRE commends PSU for reaffirming the principles of the First Amendment and for taking care to protect students’ rights to free speech.

Read President Wiewel’s letter in full and find more information on the debate on the Vanguard‘s website.

Schools: Portland State University