‘Free Speech Zone’ and Doublespeak Online at Vanderbilt

June 27, 2011

On Vanderbilt University’s Common Place, a blog maintained by the university for first-year students, a new feature named “Free Speech Zone” was recently added. This feature is essentially a forum in which students may post. However, there are three rules in this forum: “No hate speech,” “No paid advertisements,” and “No organized crime.”

This new feature, while seemingly innocuous and a good idea as a place for students to post messages, poses a threat to students’ understanding of free speech. For starters, members of the public cannot, consistent with First Amendment rights, be punished by the government for “hate speech,” because most speech that is hateful or derogatory toward a given individual or group is constitutionally protected. However, university administrators often use the ambiguous term “hate speech” to punish students for speech they deem insensitive about any person or group based on an immutable characteristic such as race, gender, ethnicity, and so forth.

Vanderbilt is a private university and thus not bound by the First Amendment. But Vanderbilt’s mission statement claims that it “values most highly intellectual freedom that supports open inquiry.” The right to free speech is supposedly deeply valued at Vanderbilt, as evidenced in the student handbook:

The community of Vanderbilt University is united by the goals of inquiry and education. … The University is committed to providing opportunities for the free and open exchange of ideas both inside and outside the classroom. It will safeguard the undisturbed, orderly expression of diverse views and opinions as well as the opportunity for their careful examination.

For its part, Vanderbilt’s faculty manual states:

Vanderbilt University is a community of men and women devoted to the search for truth. … The University is also part of the civic community in which it exists. Its members, both faculty and students, are entitled to exercise the rights of citizens and are subject to the responsibilities of citizens.

If faculty and students are indeed entitled to exercise the rights of citizens, then a reasonable person would expect to be granted the same First Amendment rights at Vanderbilt as at a public university.

Yet, by misleading students to think that free speech does not protect “hate speech,” Vanderbilt is doing its students a disservice. Those who read this prohibition on “hate speech” are likely to believe that they will face disciplinary action if they air beliefs others might find offensive, creating a harmful chilling effect on campus speech.

If recent history is any guide, allowing what some would deem “hate speech” to go unpunished can have beneficial effects. University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) student Alexandra Wallace’s infamous “Asians in the Library” video this past March, which garnered millions of views on YouTube, is a great example. In her rant, Wallace mocks Asian languages and claims that the “hordes” of Asian students at UCLA are dependent on their extended families to do chores for them. She also accuses Asian students of lacking manners, using the example of talking loudly on their cell phones in the library. While many students found the video hateful and offensive, calling for disciplinary actions against Wallace, others used the opportunity as a chance to debunk Asian stereotypes and to respond to Wallace’s expression using comedy and song. The video also had the effect of drawing more attention to the contemporaneous tsunami crisis in Japan, leading to increased donations to aid relief efforts. (For example, proceeds from sales of this T-shirt mocking Wallace’s impersonation of Asian languages went to the Red Cross.)

As an Asian-American, I felt slightly offended by the video, but I strongly believe that UCLA made the right legal and moral decision when it dropped its investigation and didn’t punish Wallace for her protected speech. To paraphrase Justice Louis Brandeis, “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” and, in this case, sunlight led to an outpouring of creativity and charity.

It is doublespeak to claim that a “free speech zone” does not include “hate speech.” Perhaps even worse, claiming that this particular forum is a “free speech zone” at Vanderbilt falsely suggests that there is no free speech on the rest of campus when, in fact, Vanderbilt has promised that its whole campus is essentially a forum for free speech. The term “free speech zone” has become associated with the implementation of policies allowing students to exercise their free speech rights only on a tiny portion of a campus, allowing campus administrators to quarantine and thereby limit the expression of unpopular views. In the last decade, many universities have eliminated their free speech zone policies, including Tufts University, Appalachian State University, and West Virginia University. It is therefore disheartening that Vanderbilt has recently implemented one, albeit in electronic form.

By implementing this troublesome new feature, Vanderbilt University administrators were seemingly deaf to the concerns of a vocal minority on campus, the Vanderbilt Young Americans for Liberty (YAL@VU), a student organization that kept the issue of free speech on campus in focus during the last academic year. On March 30, I spoke on a panel hosted by the Vanderbilt NAACP as President of YAL@VU, warning of the possible dangers in implementing a “bias incident reporting system,” which would have sought to target “hate speech” on campus.  The dialogue that began on that day was supposed to provide the impetus for more discussions in the future, although I was not informed about whether these future discussions ever took place.

Today, I am a FIRE intern, and I continue my fight for free speech at Vanderbilt by calling upon the university to swiftly take corrective action and rename its online “free speech zone” something like a “forum,” and to remove its “No hate speech” prohibition so as to end the pernicious influence of this forum. Hopefully, more and more students will join me in advocating for unfettered access to the vibrant marketplace of ideas that Vanderbilt has promised us.

Schools:  Vanderbilt University