Richard L. Cravatts

Silencing Dissent on Campus by Labeling it as Hate Speech

“Everyone is in favour of free speech,” Winston Churchill once wryly observed. “Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they a free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.”

Churchill’s prescience is obvious on college campuses today, especially concerning how students, on the one hand, support the general principle of free speech but, when pressed further to reveal their attitudes, admit that certain classes of expression should be suppressed and proscribed—sometimes even punished. On campuses where identity politics has manifested itself in a protected language of victimization and members of historically marginalized” groups seek (and most often receive) protection from criticism and judgment, who may say what about whom is carefully controlled.

Part of that process has involved categorizing speech and deciding what speech is acceptable, which views are not to be challenged, what parameters there are to major issues affecting race, sexuality, religion, and ethnicity, issues with which students grapple on a regular basis. In their zeal to purge from campus any dissenting views which question the prevailing orthodoxies, students quickly learn how to use the status as a member of a victim group to insulate themselves from critique and opprobrium.

In that process, a new tactic has emerged, namely, the designation of certain expression of being what is called “hate speech,” a contrived category of speech that has the effect of making some views beyond the moral pale, outside of acceptable standards for dialogue, thoughts that, by their very nature, are to be prohibited and labeled as not deserving of First Amendment protection.

Unfortunately for students, of course, the courts have not agreed with their flawed opinion that some speech is illegal, that this new class of what is called hate speech does not enjoy the protection of free speech, and those who utter it ought to be exposed to ridicule, condemnation, and even punishment. Most frequently, accusations of hate speech are made against students and faculty who have not conformed to the prevailing progressive thought at today’s universities, conservatives who question and often debate the policies and ideology of those on the left who obsess about oppression and marginalization by the majority culture.

If fact, the left’s obsession with the woes of those they deem to be oppressed forms the basis of what Charles J. Sykes, author of A Nation of Victims, has called a culture of victimization. “On the campuses of elite universities,” Sykes wrote, “students quickly learn the grammar and protocols of power—that the route to moral superiority and premier griping rights can be gained most efficiently through being a victim.”

If they have not previously been aware of their victim status, then indoctrination about diversity, Sykes points out, quickly helps them assume that identity and exploit it for social gain.  “In the society of victims,” he writes, “individuals compete not only for rights or economic advantage but also for points on the ‘sensitivity’ index, where ‘feelings’ rather than reason are what count. Once feelings are established as the barometer of acceptable behavior, speech (and, by extension, thought) becomes only as free as the most sensitive group will permit.” [Emphasis added.]

Students know that they are violating the precepts of free speech yet feel such a radical step is necessary and worth it because, they feel, unrestrained expression may harm vulnerable individuals for whom speech now is seen as “violence,” It may make them feel “unsafe” on campus to have to listen to and confront the opposing views of others. They may feel further marginalized by having to react to and debate those who have other, competing views.

So, labeling certain speech as “hate speech” is an effective and powerful way to suppress the ideas of those who are one’s ideological foes. If someone is accused of uttering hateful speech, and their target is a vulnerable member of a historically marginalized group of under-represented students, the accusation that the person is committing a hate crime by articulating ideas is a powerful, if immoral, deterrent to actual debate and dialogue. What is alarming is how large a percentage of students have come to see restrictions on their own free speech as being a beneficial objective, that they are willing, even eager, to restrict their own expression and that of their peers to ensure that targeted minority groups are not harmed, made to feel unsettled, or otherwise maligned when participating in the marketplace of ideas.

A 2018 report produced by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-profit group that helps defend free speech on college campuses, for example, found that while, overall, students recognized the importance of First Amendment guarantees of free speech and expression, they mistakenly carved out exceptions to those protections by favoring diversity and inclusion over free speech rights—particularly when hateful speech was allegedly aimed at minority groups.

In fact, the study revealed, “Sixty percent of students responded that promoting an inclusive environment that is welcoming to a diverse group of students should be a more important priority than protecting students’ free speech rights, including hurtful or offensive speech.” More alarming was the finding that students were willing to give universities more control over what ideas could be expressed, and specifically when those ideas could potentially “injure” or discomfort members of victim groups. “More than half of students (57 percent),” the study found, “think colleges and universities should be able to restrict student expression of political views that are hurtful or offensive to certain students.”

A similar study by the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership at the University of Wisconsin, which surveyed 530 undergraduate students about their views on free speech and religious liberties, had similarly troubling findings, particularly the revelation that 63% of the respondents “believe government should punish hate speech,” and that “50% of students believe government should restrict the speech of racially insensitive people,” the “government,” in the case of students, being the respective universities they attend. And even though universities almost universally proclaim that they want their campuses to be places where unbridled free speech and robust debate are promoted and welcomed, the survey found that more than “35% [of student respondents] believe that public institutions should be allowed to revoke invitations to speakers who might offend someone.”

As apparently many students and faculty members fail to recognize, diversity and inclusion are important goals for universities, as is protecting members of marginalized groups, but the zeal to insulate campus victims from ideological harm should not, and cannot, involve relinquishing individuals’ rights to free speech, no matter how uncomfortable, corrosive, or even hateful that expression is.

The other major problem, of course, is, who has the right to decide what is and is not considered hate speech? Where does this right come from? Why should those individuals currently making these decisions, and labeling their ideological opponents as hateful, be listened to and their views accepted as reasonable, virtuous, or even worthy? Speech protection is most frequently requested from those in protected campus groups and their allies, so the speech most likely to be condemned as hateful is conservative thought.

Thus, when someone claims that “All Lives Matter” or that “Blue Lives Matter,” are those examples of hate speech because they question the importance and virtue of the Black Lives Matter movement? Can the utility and equity of affirmative action be questioned without the speaker being accused of hate speech against black students? Can a professor be accused, similarly, of hateful thought for claiming that “black privilege” exists? Is it hate speech to deny that there is something called “white privilege”? That speech can be equivalent to violence? That racism is systemic in universities?

Is it hateful to speak against gay marriage or to be pro-life on a campus where women are predominantly pro-choice? Is it hateful to question whether Islam is actually the “Religion of Peace” but acceptable to call campus supporters of Israel racist for supporting what pro-Palestinians consider to be a brutal, apartheid, colonial occupier of stolen Muslim land? Is it hateful to link terrorism to Islam but not to accuse Israeli Jews of being the new Nazis, something uttered promiscuously on campuses nationwide?

Should invited speakers like Ben Shapiro, David Horwitz, Charles Murray, Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, Heather Mac Donald, and other conservatives be justifiably condemned as purveyors of hate speech and their speaking events disrupted or canceled, while former Black Panther and Marxist Angela Davis or plane hijacker and unrepentant terrorist Leila Khaled are welcomed on campus and speak without incident because their ideology is somehow seen as not hateful because its predominant theme is oppression?

These, and a myriad of other questions, can and should be vigorously debated and currently animate discussions on campus. It is obvious that by designating certain ideas as hate speech, campus progressives seek to suppress the ideas with which they disagree, making it unnecessary, of course, that they even have to defend their own views with facts, evidence, or common sense. That they are violating both the letter and spirit of free speech standards at their respective universities apparently is irrelevant or unknown to them. Thinking that they are virtuous, tolerant, woke, and morally superior, these social justice warriors feel empowered to suppress the views of their ideological foes, choosing rather than debating to simply shut down others’ speech and neutralize and condemn it as hate speech—thereby compromising what a university should and always has stood for: a vibrant, open place for dialogue, debate, and discussion of many viewpoints.

In 2014, The Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago published what has come to be known as the Chicago Principles, a statement on academic freedom and free speech that has since been adopted by other universities and which anticipated, and cautioned against, the impulse to discard some speech as prohibited. “. . . [I]t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.,” it stated. “Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”

There is nothing unseemly about countering speech—even hateful speech—with more speech. In fact, as the Chicago statement correctly asserted, that is the very heart of the university’s mission. The claim of liberal students and faculty members is that they are seeking a greater civility on campus through reasoned academic discourse, but their real intention seems to be to create that civility by having only their side of the discussion heard—without the uncomfortable necessity of hearing other, dissenting views. Like many of their fellow academics, they proclaim widely the virtues of open expression, but only for those who utter those thoughts with which they agree. But true intellectual diversity—the ideal that is often bandied about but rarely achieved—must be dedicated to the protection of unfettered speech, representing opposing viewpoints, where the best ideas become clear through the utterance of weaker ones.

The university officials and student groups who now try to expel all thought that “they hate;” who proclaim their desire for campuses where there will be vigorous discourse, on contentious issues, from many points of view, but end up allowing the expression of only acceptable opinions; who label speech with which they do not agree as hateful, and demonize or shun the speakers who utter those alternate views; and who shout down, heckle, and bully their ideological opponents during on-campus events—all of these individuals have sacrificed one of the core values for which the university exists.

In their zeal to be inclusive, and to recognize the needs and aspirations of perceived victim groups, they have pretended to foster inquiry—a core purpose of the university—but they actually stifle and retard it.

And, as this otherwise noble purpose for the university has devolved, the first victim in the corruption of academic free speech has, unfortunately, been the truth.

About the Author
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of the forthcoming book, The Slow Death of the University: How Radicalism, Israel Hatred, and Race Obsession are Destroying Academia.