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Debate Over ‘Hateful’ Speech Heats Up at Clemson University

Motivated by recent race-related controversies on campus, a group of Clemson University students has issued a list of demands to the university administration. While dozens of professors have publicly supported the demands, other faculty and students strongly disagree that the university should take action against students for “hateful statements” or for participating in a gang-themed party last semester.

Members of the Clemson chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity hosted a so-called “Cripmas” party off campus in December. Following complaints that the party theme was racist, the chapter suspended its activities, and many officers resigned. University president Jim Clements emailed the campus community urging students to be respectful, but acknowledging the importance of “free expression and exploration of ideas.”

Indeed, as a public university legally and morally bound by the First Amendment, Clemson cannot punish the hosts or attendees of the party just because others deem the party to be offensive. FIRE has explained this before in the context of California State University, Fullerton sanctioning students for a “Taco Tuesday” event, and in the context of Arizona State University punishing students who threw a gang-themed party.

Nevertheless, some at Clemson insist that Clements’ response was insufficient. Among the seven demands presented by members of the “See The Stripes” campaign are a multi-cultural center, funding for minority groups, an increase in minority hires, and diversity training. The call for action against speech, however, sits at the top of the list:

We want President Clements to immediately make a public statement from Clemson University—to students, alumni, faculty, staff, administration and media—denouncing both the Crip’mas Party and hateful statements from members of the Clemson Family via social media (Yik Yak, Facebook, Twitter). Additionally, we want a public commitment from the Clemson University Administration to prosecute criminally predatory behaviors and defamatory speech committed by members of the Clemson University community (including, but not limited to, those facilitated by usage of social media).

The accompanying “list of student grievances” states that “Clemson students, particularly those members of underrepresented communities were and are targets of insensitive, ignorant, alienating and (sometimes) criminal/predatory comments on social media.”

It is not clear what, specifically, See The Stripes thinks is “criminally predatory behavior” or “defamatory speech,” but fraternity members dressing up as gang members in a private residence certainly doesn’t qualify. To the extent that See The Stripes is asking Clemson to punish “insensitive, ignorant, [and] alienating” remarks, they are asking Clemson to commit a First Amendment violation—the vast majority of speech that can be described that way is nevertheless constitutionally protected. And for good reason: What is insensitive or alienating to one person might seem a necessary corrective to another. Even ignorance can and should be treated as an invitation to education and persuasion. Neither Clemson administrators nor See The Stripes are qualified to be the language police; in a free society, nobody is.

Yet in a full-page ad published in Clemson’s student newspaper The Tiger yesterday, more than 100 university faculty and staff signed on to See The Stripes’ demands.

Thankfully, some students and professors at Clemson are speaking out against these demands for censorship. Junior Emily Richards told Campus Reform that “[p]ublic universities are supposed to be a safe environment where freedom of thought and speech are not only allowed, but encouraged. … This type of censorship takes away from Clemson as an establishment and it’s appalling that those who are supposed to teach us want to silence us instead.”

And, in another full-page ad in Thursday’s issue of The Tiger, three Clemson professors promised to oppose any action by the administration against students for protected speech, even if deemed “vulgar, controversial, unpopular, insensitive, offensive, inappropriate, subversive, or blasphemous”:

We pledge to all Clemson students—present and future—that we support and will defend your freedom of thought, conscience, inquiry, speech, expression, and communication. It is our moral obligation as faculty to defend our students’ basic rights to free speech and expression, whether we support those views or not.

To deny this right, the professors argued, is not only illegal but also “a betrayal of Clemson’s commitment to providing its students with a marketplace of ideas.” They continued:

Let all Clemson faculty and students unite to fight error and prejudice with rational arguments, critical investigation, and unfettered debate, which requires upholding the principle of free speech uncompromisingly.

FIRE could not agree more, and we commend Professors C. Bradley Thompson, C. Alan Grubb, and Bradley S. Meyer for their advocacy. We hope all students, faculty, and administrators take the time to read their letter, and that the would-be censors reconsider their demands. Whatever change happens on Clemson’s campus should and must result from open discussion and debate, not from chilling or punishing speech.

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