The American political experiment was built on a foundation of radical ideals, none more so, perhaps, than the individual liberties enshrined in our Constitution’s First Amendment.
The concept is deceptively simple: To allow every individual to freely express their beliefs without government infringement. However, the practical application of what we have come to know as “freedom of speech” is actually anything but.
Justice Wendell Holmes argued a century ago that an individual does not have the right to “falsely shout fire in a theatre and cause a panic.” Such language is not only inaccurate, but dangerous, he reasoned. In the modern age, things have become considerably less clear, and the tension between unabridged freedom of expression and a necessary limitation on speech in the interest of public safety is now a legitimate political question.
Higher education sits directly in the middle of this delicate intersection. College campuses are by design hotbeds of intellectual stimulation, youthful energy, and idealism. They are home to a diverse range of individuals of varying backgrounds. That is a perfect recipe of ingredients to foster both meaningful debate and moments that are ripe for controversy.
This presents the academic community with a unique opportunity, and with it a significant challenge. We must lead the way in demonstrating that it is possible to debate a wide variety of views without devolving into chaos or hatred. As such, it is time to put in place a new, forward-thinking and inclusive plan to assure that these debates occur in an accepting, constructive environment.
First, we must take a step back to get a clearer sense of the national situation and to understand why getting this right is so important.
According to the FBI, hate crimes – defined as personal attacks motivated by bias or prejudice – reached a 16-year high in 2018, and physical assaults against individuals rose, while crimes against property declined. This phenomenon is taking place even in areas as diverse and progressive as New York City, where police data also revealed a surge in such incidents.
What’s even more troubling is that these figures are not comprehensive, and the situation is most likely even worse than the data shows. The FBI does not require state and local police departments or municipalities to report these crimes and most experts agree that many victims often do not file formal complaints.
This much is clear: It is an increasingly dangerous time for many people living in this country who find themselves the targets of displays and acts motivated by intolerance and hate.
College campuses, public and private alike, are a microcosm of society at large. As such, it should come as no surprise that they are experiencing a similar trend. And as is the case in communities across the nation, it is clear that the academic community still has work to do when it comes to responding to these incidents.
At Syracuse University, for example, graffiti with racial slurs was found in a dormitory on campus. The State Police Hate Crimes Task Force and the state Division of Human Rights were called into action, and the university was widely chastised for its slow-footed response. Students protested, calling for more transparency and action.
By contrast, the administration of Indiana University was recently praised for condemning remarks made on Twitter by one of its professors as “vile and sexist” while also declining to fire him, citing his First Amendment rights.
The unpredictable landscape is attracting attention at the highest levels of American government and will no doubt continue to be an issue for campuses moving forward. Finding the proper balance between protecting freedom of speech and condemning and even punishing hate speech is therefore a top priority.
For public systems like SUNY, these issues are even thornier. There are public dollars and public spaces in play, further heightening public interest and scrutiny. However, there is a way forward.
First, we must differentiate between actual hate crimes and otherwise controversial speech. It is an essential responsibility of institutions of higher learning to foster vigorous intellectual debate. Hate crimes are just that – crimes – and will not be tolerated.
Sometimes that will mean bringing together thinkers with different perspectives on controversial issues, even those with whom students, faculty and staff may vehemently disagree. These intellectual battles must be encouraged, not shied away from, and there must be clear rules of engagement established beforehand, and then rigorously enforced. A recent incident at Binghamton University centered around promotion of a conservative speaker will eventually be discussed in a productive manner on campus; however, at the time of the event only emotion and anger prevailed.
Second, we must remember that fostering an environment where individuals who hold views on the political left, the political right, and everywhere in between is not necessarily an endorsement of those views. Rather, it is our duty as educators to bring these ideas together. It is fundamental to our mission.
Third, speech that is bigoted, biased and hateful should be condemned, swiftly and directly by campus’s leadership. Not all ideas are created equal. Indeed, some are repugnant, repulsive, and have no place on a college campus.
Lastly, it is important that our colleges and universities stand for tolerance and inclusivity. Such a culture is strengthened and reinforced by having in place clear policies and procedures that remind us what we stand for and our foremost values
These are difficult questions and the answers must be discovered together in a comprehensive, open approach. Recognizing the fact that we do not discriminate against individuals or restrict their fundamental right to the free expression of ideas, American college campuses can be a welcoming, inclusive environment – without sacrificing free speech.