The academic year has barely begun, but it’s already seen several controversies that have students wondering how they should respond to speech that offends or upsets them. For example, students at Yale University recently expressed disapproval towards the institution’s decision to invite women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak, calling Hirsi Ali’s various writings and public statements “hate speech” and even claiming they met the legal standards for libel and slander.
Fortunately, Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan has written a simple guide for students who want to know what to do when controversial speakers like Hirsi Ali visit their campuses. Nolan writes:
A SUGGESTED FRAMEWORK FOR FREE SPEECH ON COLLEGE CAMPUSES
1) People who have controversial, objectionable, or even wrong opinions will be allowed to speak on college campuses.
2) Those who disagree with these people will be allowed to wave signs and yell and protest them and put on their own events with their own speakers with different views.
3) That’s all.
Nolan points out that controversial speakers always have been and always will be invited to campus. Instead of censoring speech one doesn’t like, Nolan basically suggests responding with more speech instead. Pretty straightforward.
As Nolan writes, following his guide would eliminate countless problems on campus:
No revoked invitations! No cowardly excuses! No need for droning punditry from left and right! And no need to deny anyone the right to make an idiot of themselves in public! This is what free speech is all about. It is not all that complicated.
For those truly unable or unwilling to tolerate controversial viewpoints, Nolan offers one last suggestion:
4) You are allowed to run up and put a pie in the face of a particularly objectionable speaker IF you are willing to be punched in the face hard in return. Fair is fair.
FIRE departs from Nolan, obviously, on that fourth suggestion. And his “Suggested Framework” only passes First Amendment muster if his second point—regarding the right to answer speech with speech—doesn’t include the “heckler’s veto” and other vigilante censorship, like shouting down speakers to prevent them from delivering their speeches. But Nolan’s tongue-in-cheek guide to free speech is useful, all told. This isn’t that hard!
For a more comprehensive explanation of students’ free speech rights, check out FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus.