A few weeks back, I wrote about a journalism student at a public college in New York who was suspended for sending an email that offended hockey coaches. Unsurprisingly, most HuffPost readers found the situation outrageous — because under the First Amendment, it takes more than mere offense to render speech subject to punishment and censorship.
Unfortunately, my experience defending student rights on campuses nationwide shows that this isn’t an isolated incident. Students get punished for protected speech that offends someone all the time. It doesn’t matter whether the speech offends hockey coaches, liberals,conservatives, Christians, Muslims, Jews, or just those with delicate ears — if someone on campus finds the expression offensive, more often than not, calls for censorship soon follow.
But censoring offensive speech is the wrong answer, particularly on our nation’s college campuses. After all, the college campus has traditionally been an arena for debate and dialogue, and has been deemed by the Supreme Court to be "peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’" The search for truth requires that "bad" ideas be tested, weighed and then discarded in favor of "good" ones after study and debate. That’s what a college education is all about — and that’s why speech codes and prohibitions of "offensive" speech on campus are counterproductive, however well-intentioned.
Ask Anthony Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU, who told a student audience at Tufts University earlier this month that "there is no place for speech codes of any kind on a college campus." Romero, who endured hateful speech as a young gay man growing up in the Bronx, continued:
Restricting that speech doesn’t make the hate go away… You drive that hate and bigotry underground and it becomes harder and harder to control…
[O]nce you decide some authority has the right to determine what is or is not legitimate speech, you’ve lost control of the system.
Commenting on the extreme anti-gay rhetoric voiced by the Westboro Baptist Church, Romero voiced the critical importance of protecting all speech, including the speech we despise:
Romero still asserted that hate speech has a right to exist, giving the example of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, whose leader, Pastor Fred Phelps, Romero has dealt with personally as a client at the ACLU.
"Do I believe [Pastor Phelps’] right to present homophobic speech is essential to my right to speak my mind as a gay activist?" Romero asked. "The answer is yes."
On a similar note, my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, released a new video earlier this month featuring author Jonathan Rauch, who has been an advocate for gay rights and gay marriage for two decades, explaining why "[w]e can’t trust anybody in authority to make smart decisions for us about what’s the acceptable point of view."
Rauch argues that free speech is of particular importance for minority groups struggling to gain civil rights — indeed, "by far the most important tool." Instead of calling for censorship, Rauch puts his faith in free speech and "the power of persuasion," which he credits for the advances in gay rights made in recent years. While speech codes may be born of good intentions, Rauch labels them "misguided," as they enforce silence over fostering dialogue and thus deny minority groups full equality and the opportunity to "denounce and refute views that are biased and bigoted."
Check out the interview with Rauch below. It’s a powerful answer to those who would choose censorship over more speech, however well-meaning that impulse may be. As Rauch says, "Is it a dangerous situation when someone can shut down the search for truth by saying ‘Oh, that offends me’? Absolutely."