Surrendering Power: Duke Students Speak Out Against Free Speech

June 28, 2016

More than 50 years ago, the student-led Free Speech Movement took place at the University of California, Berkeley. This movement remains one of the greatest examples of students’ recognition that the right to free speech is what gives them the ability to challenge the status quo and make their opinions heard. After all, as the Supreme Court noted in the landmark decision Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972), freedom of speech is what allows students to “examine and discuss all questions of interest to them.” Unfortunately, it seems some of today’s student activists are choosing to use their speech to advocate for freedom from speech.

During the first semester of my freshman year at Duke University, several troubling incidents took place on campus. Early in the year, acts of vandalism targeted towards specific minority groups threatened the campus community’s overall sense of safety. These events inspired many members of the Duke community to swiftly condemn these acts and offer support and encouragement to the targeted groups—a perfect example of the important power of contributing more speech to the conversation in response to hate. However, one deeply concerning aftershock was the rise in anti-free speech sentiments that resulted.

On November 13, 2015, a group of approximately 60 students interrupted a forum featuring Duke President Richard Brodhead and other administrators which was designed to facilitate an open discussion of racism and homophobia on campus. The students repeatedly chanted “Duke, you are guilty” before storming out.

At another forum the following week, students made it difficult for President Brodhead to respond to or ask questions by cutting him off with yelling.

The right to protest is important, and protest isn’t required to be civil. Indeed, it often derives its effectiveness from its incivility. These actions, though, suggested an intolerance for discussion and differing viewpoints, an attitude not limited just to hecklers at Duke. Across the country, students have wielded the so-called “heckler’s veto.” A heckler’s veto occurs when individuals prevent speakers from expressing their views, oftentimes through sheer volume and force. This tactic hinders others’ ability to listen as well and is thereby considered a form of censorship.

Also at the second forum, a group of students recited a list titled “Demands of Black Voices,” which included increased protections against speech. The key points of this list called for the university to define punishable “hate speech” to broadly include all “speech that offends … or insults groups” and to consider terminating employees who are “perpetuating hate speech.” The students also demanded that members of the university who are accused of wearing “culturally insensitive costumes” or attending “culturally insensitive parties” be required to “report to student conduct for bias/harassment infractions.”

While I respect the right of individuals to voice their opinions, I am concerned that, if the newfound desire for speech limitations on controversial viewpoints persists, one day students may no longer see a place for First Amendment principles on campus. The harsh truth is that differing viewpoints can be offensive or insulting. In fact, they often are—but this doesn’t mean that they should necessarily be prohibited as the demands suggest. So-called “hate speech” may be worthy of criticism, but it’s protected under the First Amendment.

While genuine hate crimes are real threats to society and are punishable by law, the categorization of certain kinds of speech as “hate speech” is concerning. Defining “hate speech” itself is essentially impossible, and attempts to do so are far too often overbroad and have the potential to chill the constitutionally protected speech of individuals. Hate speech regulations also have the potential to threaten intellectual conversations on campus. Under the definition of hate speech proposed by these demands, many of the important conversations that I had in my first semester Human Rights class regarding race and gender issues have the potential of falling under the umbrella of hate speech. Furthermore, hate speech is too often used as a “catch-all to reshape free speech rights in the direction of expanded … authority to curb and punish speech.” The broad power to censor speech should not be granted to anyone, and especially not to the administrators of institutions that advertise a commitment to “[f]reedom of inquiry and the free exchange of ideas.” In this instance, the “Demands of Black Students” suggest handing over censorship power to the very administration they are protesting.

Later in the year, a group that I am involved with, the Duke Open Campus Coalition, invited one of the most prominent protest groups at Duke to an “academic dialogue” that would hopefully “further inform our community on pertinent issues.” We believed that the inflammatory protests held earlier in the year instilled a sense of fear amongst the student body, causing students to avoid speaking up for views that differed from those expressed during protests. The group we invited wrote back stating that they “reject (our) invitation forever” and “will not show up and acknowledge (our) patriarchal white supremacist ideology as something to debate about.” As an Asian female, I found this argument perplexing.

These types of combative replies worry me because they suggest an unwillingness to engage in the kinds of dialogue that might promote their cause. Institutions of higher education, in particular, should be spaces in which these conversations can happen. Intellectual development is predicated on exposure to and grappling with unfamiliar ideas.

These are not novel concepts. These are Enlightenment-era ideals. As John Stuart Mill eloquently explained in his groundbreaking text On Liberty:

The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion.

Academic enlightenment through speech and debate can take place only if all viewpoints are given equal freedom and consideration. This is what students at UC Berkeley advocated for decades ago, and it is what students should be fighting to protect today. Advocating for protection from speech does not benefit the interests of current students because free speech is what allows students to be heard and engage in intellectual discussions. Students must be able to advocate for what they believe on campus, regardless of whether their opinions align with the majority opinion, and discuss difficult, uncomfortable topics. Anything less is a disservice to the students who have fought to protect speech on campus, and to the intellectual tradition universities must uphold.

Caroline Wang is a FIRE summer intern.

Schools:  Duke University