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Rowan Students Petition for ‘Hate Speech’ Policy; Administrator Responds in Defense of Free Speech

By March 12, 2014

Rowan University student newspaper The Whit reported late last month on a student petition urging the school to revise its free speech policy in order to address “recent hate speech from non-student organizations on campus.” Assistant Vice President of Equity and Diversity Johanna Velez-Yelin responded with an important reminder about the boundaries of the First Amendment—by which the public New Jersey university is legally bound—and the best way to protect open discourse on campus.

As we frequently note here on The Torch, only a small fraction of what is commonly labeled “hate speech” actually falls into one of the few, narrow categories of speech unprotected by the First Amendment (such as true threats or incitement to imminent lawless action). But in calling on the university to prohibit hate speech, Rowan students cited, for example, an outside speaker on campus who told students that they were going to hell. If statements like this one were prohibited under a new policy, a wide range of protected student expression would be at risk of punishment, and students would be likely to self-censor in order to avoid punishment, too.

Junior Lisa Tischio told The Whit, “We’re not trying to limit the freedom of speech, but expand it while banning hate speech on campus.” Such a statement is a contradiction in terms and is a symptom of students “unlearning liberty”—that is to say, becoming accustomed to, and even encouraging, campus censorship.

According to Vice President of University Relations Joe Cardona, complaints of hate speech or discrimination would be handled by the Office of Equity and Diversity. So it is reassuring to see an administrator in that office straightforwardly push back against requests to punish protected expression. Velez-Yelin explained in The Whit:

People have a right to speak. … I don’t agree with anything this [speaker] said, but this is about the right to speak versus “I don’t like what I hear.” … We have to be careful with opening the door for censoring speech.

Velez-Yelin further offered a suggestion to students who disagree with on-campus speakers:

They have a right to protest and speak an opposite message to this man, and the best way to counter what this man believes in is to turn it into a positive message that neutralizes his.

FIRE applauds Velez-Yelin for her commitment to free expression and her response of encouraging students to add to, rather than limit, the “marketplace of ideas” that universities are meant to be.

The Whit reported that plans to move forward with the petition were uncertain, but whatever students demand, Rowan should abide by its legal and moral duty as a public university to protect its students’ First Amendment rights.