Free Speech, Hate Speech and Campus Values

By on June 21st, 2019

From our earliest days as an independent country to the present, it’s always been tough to balance constitutional rights and other fundamental American values. Think back to the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams, Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Red Scare of the Joseph McCarthy era and the suppression of civil rights and the rights to speak and publish freely, to worship, to wed, to protest, to privacy.

We’re now witnessing one such debate on public and private college campuses across the United States, according to a new national study examining student attitudes toward diversity and inclusivity on one side balanced against free speech on the other.

“College students are divided over whether it’s more important to promote an inclusive society that welcomes diverse groups or to protect free speech, even if those protections come at the expense of inclusivity,” said the report, “Free Expression on College Campuses.

College Pulse, an online survey and analytics firm, did the study commissioned by the Knight Foundation. (Disclosure: The foundation endowed my Knight Chair in Environmental Journalism at Michigan State.) The findings were based on interviews with 4,407 full-time students enrolled in four-year degree programs.

Overall, 53% ranked free speech protections higher, while 46% put diversity first. But the overall figures mask sharp differences within studentdom. For example, almost 60% of women but only 28% of men valued inclusiveness more highly than free speech. More than 60% of African-American students put inclusiveness first, but less than half of Hispanic, white and Asian-Pacific Islanders did. 

The report noted a “stark divide between Christian and non-Christian students.” Most Mormons (81%), white evangelical Protestants (71%), mainline white Protestants (64%) and Catholics (62%) ranked free speech ahead of diversity. However, Jewish (65%), Hindu, Buddhist and other Asian religions (60%) and “religiously unaffiliated” (54%) students placed priority on inclusiveness. Nonwhite Protestants favored inclusivity over free speech by a narrow margin (51% vs. 49%).

On a related question –“which is a bigger problem, people speaking insensitively in a way that offends others, or people being too insensitive about others’ language” – most students (6 in 10) said people are too sensitive. There was a gender split here, too. Among men, 74% responded that people are too easily offended, while the figure was 51% for women.

Gender differences were apparent on whether the First Amendment protects hate speech – defined as “attacks on people based on their race, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation.” Among women, only 46% said it should be protected, contrasted with 74% of men. Only 35% of gay and lesbian students and only 29% of students who identify as gender nonbinary said hate speech is entitled to protection. 

On another question, 9% percent of students said it’s always acceptable to deny the press access to cover campus protests and rallies, while 49% say it’s sometimes acceptable to do so – a troubling sentiment at a time when First Amendment freedom of the press is under attack on other fronts. 

The study also reported, “College students largely agree that the political and social climate on campuses prevents some students from saying what they really believe because they are afraid of offending their classmates.”

The two most important takeaways from the study from my perspective as a journalist, as a professor and as a citizen: First, the findings show that today’s students can think deeply about these crucial but no-right-answer issues.

Second, efforts to brand campuses as “liberal” or “conservative” are often political rhetoric that misleadingly homogenizes America’s approximately 19.9 million college students. 

Meanwhile in Lansing, a group of GOP lawmakers is pushing legislation they assert would strengthen students’ First Amendment rights at public universities and community colleges.

“The state’s public colleges and universities have the responsibility to uphold the constitutional rights of students and the community on campus grounds,” said the lead sponsor, Rep. John Reilly of Oakland County, in a Facebook post after a House Oversight Committee hearing on the bills this spring. “Right now, students at multiple universities live under speech policies that infringe on their rights to free speech and assembly. Due to some schools’ ongoing unwillingness to ensure their rights, the Legislature must do so.”

One bill, HB 4435, “would specify the criteria by which a public institution of higher learning could restrict expressive conduct in public areas of its campuses,” according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis. 

It would define “expressive conduct” to include “peaceful forms of assembly, protest, speech, distributing literature, carrying signs and circulating petitions in open areas, and filming and broadcasting on the internet.”

Under that bill, colleges could restrict “expressive conduct in public areas” only if “necessary to achieve a compelling governmental interest and is viewpoint-neutral and content-neutral.” 

Colleges also would need to provide “ample alternative opportunities to engage in the expressive conduct” and couldn’t “quarantine speech to zones,” the Fiscal Agency analysis said.

The other bill, HB 4436, would require public colleges to “develop and adopt a policy on free expression,” distribute it to students and develop programs to ensure that administrators, instructors and campus police understand the policy and related regulations, the analysis said.

The co-sponsors are Reps. Michele Hoitenga of Manton; Steven Johnson of Wayland Township; Aaron Miller of Sturgis; Luke Meerman of Polkton Township; Brad Paquette of Niles; Gregory Markkanen of Hancock; Pamela Hornberger of Chesterfield Township; Beau LaFave of Iron Mountain; Gary Eisen of St. Clair Township; and Mike Mueller of Linden.

Michael Hansen, the president of the Michigan Community College Association, questions the need for legislative action. 

“To a large extent it’s a solution looking for a problem,” he explained. “One or two isolated incidents at one or two colleges over a 50-year period is hardly a concern,” he said. “For colleges, 99.9% of the time it is never an issue.” 

To illustrate, Hansen recounted a recent conversation with the president of a campus where protesters were blocking a door: They moved away from the door when asked, the president told him. 

In “rare cases” when a conflict occurs, “it’s typically handled in an appropriate manner with all interests involved,” Hansen said. “Those are such rare isolated cases, to now develop a whole set of state laws and regulations around this probably is not the appropriate approach from our standpoint.”

Although the association hasn’t done a survey, he said the majority of community colleges probably have relevant policies in place, and some are adopting more formal policies due to litigation. While the bills’ sponsors may intend to “bring clarity and structure,” legislation that would “write policy for our institutions” could create confusion and reduce clarity, he said. 

The House Fiscal Agency analysis raised another possible objection to the legislation, saying the proposals raise “constitutional autonomy questions for public universities.”

That’s especially true for the three largest public institutions – the University of Michigan, Wayne State and Michigan State – that have wide independence under the state constitution. Past legislative efforts to interfere with that independence – often with political motives – have provoked criticism. 

However, Reilly’s Facebook post said, “The Legislature not only has the authority but the duty to protect free speech rights of its citizens and shield its taxpayers from unnecessary financial liability arising from lawsuits to resolve unconstitutional campus policies.”

Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. He is a former Lansing Bureau reporter for the Detroit News and has been a Fulbright journalism instructor in Uzbekistan, Lithuania and the Republic of Georgia.

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