July 30, 2016 8:06 AM

Free speech or hateful speech: Who gets to decide?

College students want free speech on their campuses but want their administrators to intervene when it turns into hate speech, though they disagree on whether college campuses are open environments and on how the media should cover campus protests, according to a new Gallup survey on the First Amendment released Monday. About 78 percent of students surveyed said that colleges should allow “all types of speech and viewpoints,” while 22 percent noted that “colleges should prohibit biased or offensive speech in the furtherance of a positive learning environment.”…. “Students do appear to distinguish controversial views from what they see as hate speech — and they believe colleges should be allowed to establish policies restricting language and certain behavior that are intentionally offensive to certain groups,” the survey’s organizers wrote. Yet about 54 percent of students said that “the climate on campus prevents some people from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive.”

Over the past year or so, we’ve seen numerous controversies erupt on college campuses nationwide relation to free speech and expression. What I’m struggling to understand is the seemingly generalized desire for free speech…except when it’s “hate speech.” The question, in my my at least, is what constitutes “hate speech.” Beyond that, who gets to determine when free speech crosses the line to become “hate speech?” Whose tender sensibilities get to be used as the yardstick employed to vet the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of free speech?

I’m not one to defend “hate speech”…but defining it is no small task. I won’t argue with the contention that some speech is so offensive and hurtful that it serves no useful collective purpose. My concern is with where that line is drawn and who gets to draw it.

And when does drawing that line become the abrogation of free speech?

One of the disturbing trends on college campuses is the idea that students deserve a “safe space.” As I understand it, students expect to have access to a space in which they’re exposed to no words or ideas that might offend them- a bubble in which they experience only affirming and uplifting speech. They seem to feel as if they deserve to be insulated from anything that might cause them distress. To this, I can only say: “WTF???”

Perhaps this will sound sarcastic, and to a certain degree it’s meant to: Come on, Cupcake; there are no “safe spaces” in life. You can’t expect to be shielded and protected from words and ideas you might find offensive. The real world, the one you’re preparing yourself to go out into, doesn’t work like that. It’s time to put on your big boy (or girl) pants and accept that no one is responsible for protecting your tender sensibilities.

The survey indicated that students are also concerned about the use of social media, with many noting that they feel that it can lead to uncivil and hateful discussions and that it can be easy to express opinions anonymously. For example, Yik Yak, a popular social network on college campuses, allows anonymous postings. Many college students have reported seeing hateful Yik Yak posts, increasing pressure on the company to crack down on people who use the app to harass others.

Certainly, “uncivil and hateful discussions” can be and very often are exceedingly unpleasant. This sort of thing is distressingly prevalent on social media. Those who use social media can attempt to organize and exert pressure on companies to reduce harrassment…or they can find another app to use. The ignorant and the hateful will always be among us…and most of those folks can be found on some sort of social media. The question becomes how one deals with unpleasant people- do you ignore and/or block them, do you work to convince a social media company to create a friendlier and more collegial environment, or do you whine and complain about your feelings being hurt?

The real world doesn’t come with safe spaces, and free speech can be and very often is hateful and offensive speech. You can accept and work to rise above it…or you can piss and moan about the hurtfulness and unfairness of it all.

Life is hard. Wear a helmet, eh?

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This page contains a single entry by Jack Cluth published on July 30, 2016 8:06 AM.

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