Following comments made during a debate over the free speech ramifications of a proposed resolution, a student senator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) is facing a hearing and potential impeachment.
While opposing a resolution pledging to remove “derogatory language” from its members’ vocabulary, Association of Students of the University of Nebraska (ASUN) Senator Cameron Murphy argued that context matters and that words should not be banned wholesale simply because they are considered “offensive” or “derogatory” per se. In doing so, he quoted and discussed comedian Chris Rock’s “Niggas vs. Black People” routine and related a personal story about being called a “cracker.” Murphy concluded that “[r]estricting speech is bad. It starts at phase one, and there’s no turning back from there.” In this, he is undoubtedly correct. The power to restrict speech based on subjective criteria such as “offensiveness” is ripe for overuse and prone to abuse.
But the resolution ultimately passed, and its sponsor, Claire Eckstrom, brushed off any free speech concerns in a troubling statement:
“I remind everyone that this isn’t restriction of speech — this is about how we want to exercise our free speech and choosing how we’re going to exercise our right in a respectful way.”
Eckstrom’s statement betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what free speech means. When the majority decides what words and ideas may be expressed and mandates adherence to a standard as nebulous as “respectfulness,” it is very much a restriction of speech. Eckstrom may decide how she wishes to express herself, but attempting to control how others contribute to discussion and debate is a foolhardy endeavor that diminishes critical thinking and prevents participants from fully exploring the issue at hand.
Eckstrom’s troubling statement aside, the situation appears grim for Murphy, who will have to answer for his remarks in front of the ASUN executive committee, after which the Senate will vote on whether he will be removed. Annie Himes, the student who proposed that Murphy answer for his comments at a hearing, said that she “thinks it is important to stand up for what is right.” Unfortunately, her colleagues were all too happy to agree to put a fellow student on trial for his words. Supporting the decision to subject Murphy to a hearing, student Dasia Horne said: “He was very loose with his words, and his actions created reactions.”
On the contrary, it appears that Murphy was deliberate with his words, illustrating his point with attention-grabbing examples. And what of the reactions that his words caused? Does Horne believe that speech on campus should be subject to the heckler’s veto and speakers punished merely for causing a reaction? Shocking and offensive language is often used in order to make a point and to get a rise out of others, and that speech is no less protected than the most “civil” or “respectful” speech. That Murphy’s speech created “reactions” is exactly the point—this is the time for discussion and spirited debate, not for a rush to punish a controversial speaker. Nobody benefits from the suppression of words and ideas.
Of course, the blame for all of this “unlearned liberty” doesn’t rest solely with the students. With administrators like UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman, it’s no surprise that students misunderstand the principles of free speech. Perlman addressed the incident in a message to the entire UNL community, saying:
Racial epithets and racial impersonations are not acceptable anywhere but especially in an institution devoted to education and progress. ... I am deeply hurt that use of this language has been used here, for purposes I can’t imagine and in venues where civil discourse and its values are honored. We don’t need to debate any nuance of free speech to conclude such language is harmful, despicable, and intolerable.
Perlman is seemingly unaware of the purpose for which the offending words were spoken. This message conveys no sense of context, as if a student had inexplicably launched into a racist tirade without prompting—when in fact Murphy chose his language specifically to make a point about free speech and the nuances of words that make banning them a bad idea.
And Cameron Murphy is far from the only person publicly discussing usage of the word “nigger” these days. On Saturday, The New York Times published an editorial by Ta-Nehisi Coates making the same point that Murphy attempted to make: Words only have meaning in context, and though “nigger” may be offensive in some instances, it can be acceptable in others. The solution is not to ban words but to allow those who use them inappropriately to suffer the social consequences of doing so. Michiko Kakutani made a similar contention in the Times nearly three years ago when she decried the attempted sanitization ofHuckleberry Finn (by replacing “nigger” with “slave”), arguing that such censorship “relieves teachers of the fundamental responsibility” of putting difficult words and ideas in context, and leaves students ignorant of historical realities.
Since UNL’s response to the mere use of the word “nigger,” without regard to context, has been to declare“Not Here, Not Now, Not Ever,” one wonders whether Perlman and UNL will display intellectual consistency and remove The New York Times from UNL’s library or its Newspaper Readership Program. Will it remove all books containing the word “nigger,” further relieving its students from the burden of examining words in context and thinking critically?
Furthermore, Perlman’s assertion that a university is the least acceptable place for such speech is misguided and incorrect. Universities are supposed to represent the ultimate marketplace of ideas, where students learn to rebut speech and ideas that they disagree with and learn to think critically in forming their opinions and counterarguments. The Supreme Court recognized this in Healy v. James (1972), stating that “[t]he college classroom with its surrounding environs is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’” How are students supposed to engage in this crucial exercise when broad swaths of ideas and words are declared “unacceptable” and “intolerable” from on high?
The irony of it all—that Murphy was making a point about free speech only to see administrators and students rush to declare certain ideas off-limits—may be lost on ASUN and Chancellor Perlman, but it is not lost on us.
Image: Members of the Association of Students of the University of Nebraska - Amber Baesler The Daily Nebraskan