‘Zero Tolerance’ for Racist Speech Raises First Amendment Concerns at Florida State

By September 6, 2013

At Florida State University, a controversy has erupted in response to a student’s posting on the social media platform Vine. FSUNews.com reports: The student, Mandy Thurston, made racially-charged comments on the social media platform Vine, which ignited outrage from Florida State and Florida A&M University students alike. The statement was perceived as highly offensive and quickly received school-wide attention.  FSUNews.com also has a screen capture of the post.  The FSU administration has released a joint statement by Vice President for Student Affairs Mary Coburn and Student Government President Rosie Contreras in response to the controversy. The full statement can be read here, but this section is cause for concern: Florida State has zero tolerance for “racist speech,” no matter which medium is used to communicate the message. Please be assured that the University is investigating this situation and will take appropriate action within University policy. While the posting in this case is no doubt offensive to a great majority of people, it is protected by the First Amendment. Why? There are many reasons, but one of the most articulate statements of the importance of tolerating speech we find offensive comes from the philosopher John Stuart Mill in his 1869 treatise On Liberty: [T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. FSU’s professed “zero tolerance” stance toward racist speech is plainly irreconcilable with both its constitutional obligations and Mill’s reasoning. That’s why FSU’s statement that it is “investigating this situation and will take appropriate action within University policy” is so unsettling. What grounds for investigation does FSU have, given the protected nature of the expression? What does it consider “appropriate action” to be here, and what university policies are implicated?  Even more concerning is the prospect that university police may be involved in the investigation as well; FSUNews.com reports that “[a]ccording to Harold Scott, president of the FSU’s Black Student Union, Florida State University Police and FSU administration are waging an investigation.” What is law enforcement’s role here in investigating students’ protected speech? There are many ways that FSU can take a strong stand against racism and racist expression and encourage its students to do so as well. Its statement from yesterday notes that its annual “Civility Week” begins on September 11, and no doubt this case has given the school a real-world example on which to build. But FSU may not cast aside the First Amendment, which necessarily means allowing for the possibility that students will be exposed to speech they find highly offensive. FSU must give its students the opportunity to benefit from “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” If FSU has opened a disciplinary investigation against the student here, it must promptly close it. FIRE is watching to see if it does. 

Schools: Florida State University