The Danger of “Hate Speech”

May 31, 2007
Often, while reviewing a school’s policies or the text of an administrator’s speech, I encounter promises of free speech tempered by the idea of hate speech: “While free speech is an integral part of this institution, hate speech is unacceptable and will be punished.” However, most of what universities call “hate speech” is free speech, as defined by the First Amendment, and trying to make a distinction between the two leads to dangerously subjective tests.
Therefore, it was refreshing to read an article in today’s Los Angeles Times about an event at UC Irvine at which the school’s Chancellor, Michael V. Drake, stated, “Free speech means simply that: free speech,” and “Speech is protected. It can be hateful. It can be wrong. It can be vile.”

A handful of Jewish organizations held a town meeting to address concerns about a string of recent events that many perceived to be anti-Semitic. The latest event, reportedly sponsored by Muslim students, protested Israel’s policies towards Palestinians.

One attendee insisted that Chancellor Drake, and therefore UC Irvine, draw a line between free speech and hate speech:
I can’t decide if [Drake] doesn’t get it or if he’s in denial… He keeps saying that he abhors hate speech, but he’s unwilling to take a position on the issue of what to do about anti-Semitic activity.
While Chancellor Drake did say he believes anti-Semitism is “the utterance of fools,” he also said “he hoped to make it clear that the difference between free speech and hate speech ‘is nebulous.’”
I hope more administrators follow Chancellor Drake’s example. When discussing issues like the Israeli-Arab conflict, some will always be hurt or offended by those with differing opinions. However, that does not mean that we should avoid discussing these topics, especially on college campuses. Issues like this require the most open and robust debate: if there were easy answers, we would have already found them.

Schools:  University of California, Irvine