Last week, Vanderbilt University Law School professor Carol Swain, writing in the aftermath of the recent attacks against the French publication Charlie Hebdo, penned an op-ed for The Tennessean arguing that Islam is a uniquely dangerous religion. Many in the Vanderbilt community objected to the piece—some urging her to engage with Muslim students, and others labeling the column “hate speech” and suggesting Swain should no longer teach at Vanderbilt. Thankfully, the response from Vanderbilt Associate Provost and Dean of Students Mark Bandas properly emphasized the importance of standing by principles of free speech, particularly “when polarizing speech is shared.”
According to The Tennessean, student and faculty protesters gathered on campus last Saturday to protest the op-ed and “demanded that Vanderbilt officials condemn Swain’s comments and declare that the campus is free of intolerance and hatred against its students.” At the onset, it’s worth noting that Swain was expressing herself in an off-campus publication in her personal capacity. But even with respect to on-campus speech, Vanderbilt may not, consistent with its official policies committing the university to free speech, simply ban expression that a group of outspoken students deems “hate speech.” As we’ve said many times before on The Torch, the term “hate speech” has no legal definition, and the vast majority of what is labeled “hate speech” is constitutionally protected.
As was the only proper course, Vanderbilt declined to take action against Swain. Bandas wrote to Vanderbilt students to acknowledge the concerns of Muslim students and other students, but also to remind students that the best answer to speech with which one disagrees is more speech. He wrote:
Closely aligned with our commitment to diversity and inclusion is our support of free speech, which is put to the test when polarizing speech is shared. I encourage all students who wish to do so to fully exercise freedom of expression, and to engage in dialogue with your classmates, with faculty, and particularly those with whom you disagree.
FIRE wholeheartedly agrees, and we hope that more students choose to participate in discussions about the op-ed rather than attempting to silence Swain through punishment.
Vanderbilt student Jeffrey Greenberg wrote an excellent defense of free speech for the university’s student newspaper the Vanderbilt Hustler on Monday. He echoed Bandas’s sentiment that freedom of speech is meaningful only when it applies to controversial speech in addition to that with which most people agree. He also presents a historical and practical argument for allowing even speech that we find viscerally disgusting:
Determining accepted speech based solely on emotional comfort troubles me deeply for a few reasons. An inherent arbitrariness exists in the concept of emotional safety. Each new gatekeeper holds his or her own standards as to what qualifies as beyond reproach. To make a policy of curtailing speech deemed “offensive” by the majority of the student body thus seems myopic. We are not far removed from a time when the script was flipped, when arguments for civil rights and religious freedoms were themselves considered offensive and disruptive to the people’s comfort. The tide can easily turn again. If we take away the protections that exist today, they won’t be there when you find yourself in need of them tomorrow.
Instead of asking Vanderbilt to effectively halt any potential debate, students who disagree with Swain should step up to the plate and debate her on the merits. Swain has indicated she would be open to such a conversation, and students have already demonstrated they have plenty to say in response. And while one student seems to expect discriminatory treatment by Swain against Muslim students, there are, as far as FIRE can tell, no claims that Swain has actually treated her students differently because of their religious beliefs.
Swain posted on her Facebook page on Saturday:
Why are today’s university students so fragile they need counseling and affirmation whenever they hear something that makes them uncomfortable? Learning how to deal with your emotions is part of growing up. #VanderbiltU
That’s the funny thing, though. These students are, on the one hand, asking for Vanderbilt to speak and act on their behalf against Swain, as though they cannot defend themselves. But on the other hand, they are speaking out with information and their own opinions; they’ve organized a protest; the op-ed will likely spur them to more activism. Rather than play the part of victim, Vanderbilt students should focus on this more effective strategy—being their own advocates, as they have already demonstrated they are capable of doing.