How Not to Respond to Hate Speech

After reading this article, if you want to go down to the comments section and publicly excoriate my words in a vulgar and odious fashion, I won’t like it, but I’ll vigorously defend your right to do so. Although I, like my fellow TSL columnist J. Camilo Vilaseca CM ‘16, am not a free speech absolutist (recognizing the current narrow Constitutional exceptions for 'fighting words,' slander, libel, and others), I certainly don’t believe we should prevent people from saying certain things that might make people uncomfortable, angry, or 'unsafe.' There should be action taken when hate speech sneaks deceitfully into civilized society, but it should be communal action, not administrative.

Recently, vandalism on Pitzer College’s campus and a note on a Scripps College residential whiteboard sparked intense reactions from campus communities about race relations and their treatment in the 2016 presidential race. Vilaseca quickly pointed out that anonymous vandalism doesn't lead to productive discourse, and TSL's Editorial Board concurred, asking that students with important views raise their concerns in public so that others could engage in debate with them.

Indeed, this is the most appropriate method of responding to any speech that one finds offensive.  When Matt Hale, self-proclaimed racist and founder of a religious organization based on white supremacy, was invited to speak at the University of Illinois at Springfield, students listened to his presentation but then organized community action to fight back against Hale’s hate speech.

Another TSL columnist, William Schumacher PO ‘18, whose article insinuated that conservative views were the only ones people might wish to condemn, seems to call for something similar. However, Schumacher fails to recognize that much of the campus activism that publications like The Claremont Independent criticize actually does call for the suppression of speech and isn’t just a positive expression of viewpoints.

When students label political slogans on whiteboards “crimes,” they are asking administrators to limit what people can and can’t say. Even if the political slogan on Scripps’ campus was racially targeted (and it seems like it was), it doesn’t remotely qualify as harassment under any legal definition in California or in the United States (a credible threat of violence or a continued abuse or annoyance of a person). In this situation, students aren’t taking communal action like Vilaseca or the Editorial Board call for them to do. They are asking the administration college administrations to limit First Amendment rights.

Labeling a political slogan a “hate crime” has another effect that actually works against an effective, communal response to despicable hate speech. The First Amendment exists to allow for the dissemination of public thought, to protect unpopular speech, and to allow the greatest diversity of ideas. Just as damaging to these goals as violating the First Amendment is making ridiculous claims that ostracize a whole sect of students. My first reaction to hearing about the events at Scripps was revulsion–but more at the response than the incident. That’s not the reaction I want to have. Let me be clear: I in no way condone and, in fact, condemn all hate speech; however, in a year when activism on campus has gone to the extreme with race-based segregation implemented on campus, it’s hard for me and others to empathize with movements that would otherwise be productive if they could attract diverse support.

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