THIBODAUX, La., June 15, 2020 — In a June 8 email to his students and faculty, Nicholls State University President Jay Clune wrote that “[f]ree speech does not protect hate speech.”
That’s not true.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reminded Clune Friday that there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment and that his false characterization of free speech not only impermissibly chills speech, but can open up the public university to costly lawsuits and criticism from civil liberties organizations.
“It’s a common refrain — that the First Amendment doesn’t protect hate speech,” said Adam Steinbaugh, author of FIRE’s letter to Nicholls. “The problem is, that’s wrong. Some hateful expression is not protected because it falls into one of the other exceptions to the First Amendment, but there is no categorical ‘hate speech’ exception. Everybody has their own definition of ‘hate speech,’ and a university president should not mislead students and faculty about what the Constitution permits him to do.”
FIRE’s letter examines the main problem with Clune’s assertion: that there are very few exceptions to the First Amendment — and “hate speech” is not one of them. FIRE has long encouraged students to combat speech they find offensive with their own speech, not calls for censorship. However well-intended Clune’s goals might be, they will almost certainly erode the rights of all students and faculty at the public university, including black, indigenous, and people of color.
As a public institution, Nicholls State is legally required to uphold student and faculty First Amendment rights. The university holds a “yellow light” free speech rating from FIRE, meaning it maintains policies that could too easily encourage administrative abuse, arbitrary application, and censorship.
From FIRE’s letter: “In times of great social and political upheaval, our governmental and educational institutions face substantial pressure to foreclose on expression protected by the First Amendment. This, however, is when institutions must be most vigilant in refusing to do so. Penalizing protected expression is not a cure for the underlying challenges faced by society, and abandoning a robust defense of freedom of expression will inure to the detriment of rights across political, social, and ideological spectrums.”
Instead of promising “the swiftest, harshest action” in stomping out constitutionally-protected speech, Clune should swiftly assure his students that Nicholls State will not try to dismantle student and faculty First Amendment rights, and instead find other ways to address student and faculty concerns about discrimination.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.
Daniel Burnett, Assistant Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Jay Clune, President, Nicholls State University: 985-448-4003; email@example.com