“UCLA Student Off Hook for Video Rant Against Asians”- this was the headline of an article on Abc news after Alexandra Wallace, a third year political Science major at UCLA, posted a racist video on Youtube on March 11, 2011. The video, titled “Asians in the Library,” was posted only hours after a deadly earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. The incident received immense amount of public backlash with many students and organizations demanding Wallace’s expulsion from the university. Contrary to their expectations, the college did not take any action against Wallace since “it did not violate the university’s student code of conduct.” Was this an instance of hate speech or discrimination? Should the university have taken some action against Wallace? What should the boundaries of free speech on campus be? By analyzing the implications of hate speech, it can be concluded that hate speech codes should be allowed on college campuses.
Hate speech can be defined as “Speech that is intended to offend, insult, intimidate, or threaten an individual or group based on a trait or attribute, such as sexual orientation, religion, color, gender, or disability.” The video was a “racist rant”, which along with being insensitive, involved a number of disparaging comments and mocked Asian students for talking on the phone in the library, including those who were concerned about the safety of their family members in lieu of the recent disaster. She also complains of the same Asian students who have chores done for them. This was a clear instance of hate speech. However, the University, being a public one, could not take any action against Wallace since hate speech codes are ‘unconstitutional.’
Hate speech should be banned from college campuses for the simple reason of creating a conducive as well as a more welcoming learning environment. Even though, the video did not directly violate the student code of conduct, it was a violation of the principles of the well-being of a community. Such statements add little or no social value. Today, with college campuses becoming increasingly diverse, acceptance and tolerance of other communities is the need of the hour. No student would want to attend college, if they would be attacked on the basis of attributes which do not even remotely impact their character or personality. For instance, if one goes to a theatre, their main aim is to watch a movie. Hypothetically, if there is some source of disturbance; the immediate solution would be to remove the cause of disturbance which prevents you from achieving your aim. Similarly, the main aim of coming to college is to educate oneself. Hate speech does more than just hurt feelings. It impedes education by attacking students and prevents them from competing fairly in the academia. It is counter-conducive and generally causes more harm than the freedom of speech that it provides.
The implementation of hate speech codes calls for a clear distinction between hate speech and offensive speech. Offensive or controversial speech, one which reflects the views and opinions of others, is not hate speech. A popular misconception involves equating- limiting of hate speech to limiting of free speech. The two ideas should not be misconstrued. Prohibition of hate speech does suffice as a reason for students to protest against controversial speakers and prevent them from coming to campus, it does not prevent others from giving their opinions in fear of protest or punishment. Students do not have an absolute right of being protected from offense, embarrassment or anything that causes them discomfort. In fact, the expression of popular and unpopular beliefs is greatly encouraged. Consequently, such speech codes do not limit or prohibit anyone from expressing his/her views, it just helps us understand where free speech ends and hate speech begins. Moreover, most of those who do not agree with the banning of hate speech, are not on the receiving end of spectrum. Such a step is necessary for the protection of minorities. The Freedom Forum Institute believes that, “hate speech subjugates minorities and prevents them from using their freedom of speech.”
The University of California, Police Department (UCPD) regards hate crime as an offense. They define it as “A criminal act committed, because of one or more of the following actual or perceived characteristics of the victim including disability, gender, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or association with a person or group with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics.” Both hate crimes and hate speech stem from the same intentions of being prejudiced towards a person or group of people. Thus, if hate crime is a punishable offense and is taken extremely seriously, why shouldn’t hate speech be punishable and thus prevented too? In fact, hate speech can lead to hate crime. In the “True Threats” podcast, host Nico Perrino and speaker David Hudson advice college students on how instead of cutting down free speech and controversial views, one should debate and prove the ideas wrong instead of shutting them down.
This counterargument that the complete free expression of ideas provokes rigorous debate, and inspires the need to prove other’s opinions as faulty might not always hold true. For example, if one is subjected to racist comments, would he/she calmly debate over the subject, proving the other wrong? Conversely, it would lead to an argument with the whole situation getting out of control. Thus, instead of provoking debate, hate speech ends up provoking violence due to the intolerance of such sensitive topics and could even lead to a mismatch among various communities or groups on campus.
Recently, increasing number of private universities are implementing speech codes. For instance, Emory university prohibits the use of any speech which causes “discriminatory harassment” directed towards a group of people on the basis of but not limited to caste, religion, gender, veteran’s status and so on. Universities should be free to decide for themselves what kind of speech codes they would want to adopt. The aim of both public and private universities is to provide education to the same level of college kids. If there exists such a distinction, does it indicate that students attending public universities have a greater tolerance to hate speech than those attending private ones? The very reason that a greater number of private institutions implement speech codes, proves as evidence that some kind of action should be taken against hate speech. Consequently, public universities should not be obliged to follow the first amendment.
In Chemerinsky and Gillman’s book “Free Speech On Campus,” the authors introduce the idea that hate speech codes should not be permitted since the censorship of words leads to the censorship of ideas. This statement stands true, in the sense that opposing or controversial views should not be prohibited since it prevents an individual from developing his/her own thought process. As also stated in the book, one of the main reasons for Freedom of Speech is the Freedom of Thought, that is an individual can only develop his/her own views when exposed to the views and opinions of others. However, in terms of hate speech this statement might not hold true, since hate speech stems from ideas of prejudice and discrimination which in fact should be curbed and censored. Therefore, this argument may not hold true in terms of hate speech. Nevertheless, some questions still remain unanswered, especially those relating to the boundaries of hate speech. Hate speech has an extremely broad and vague definition, which often targets people who did not intend any harm to be caused.
As in the case of Dean Spellman, of Claremont McKenna college- she wrote an email to invite a Mexican student to converse with her so as to better accommodate students, who did not fit the “CMC mold.” The use of this phrase resulted in a huge amount of public backlash as students found her comments racist as well as biased towards minorities and marginalized groups. However, Dean Spellman had never intended at such a consequence, but was still forced to resign. This further proves that there is an urgent to for the law to clearly define the blurred lines between free and hate speech. The failure to establish a precise definition of what free speech means on college campuses today poses as a barrier to censor speech without undermining academic freedom as a priority.