Being Right: First Amendment – On Freedom of Hate Speech

Connor Madalo, Class of 2020

University Orthodoxy is Destroying Liberalism

The First Amendment protects all types of speech, including speech that is hateful or offensive. This protection has been repeatedly upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court for decades with few exceptions. However, resistance to free speech has grown rapidly over the past few years on college campuses, raising concern over whether universities which were founded on the ideas of liberalism and free thinking are still the intellectually progressive and liberal institutions that they claim to be.

Last week, the Brookings Institute published a survey of American college undergraduates which found that a plurality of undergraduates (44 percent) believe the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech.” When asked if the use of violence to prevent a “very controversial speaker” from speaking at a public university was acceptable, 19 percent of students said yes. At the University of California, Berkeley, resistance to freedom of speech has never been as strong as during this self-proclaimed “Free Speech Year.” On September 14, the university spent approximately $600,000 dollars on security for a single speech made by conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro, fearing that his presence would spark mass violence from protesters. Left leaning students and faculty equated his conservative ideas to “hate speech,” a politically polarizing and ridiculous act that contributes to the ongoing delegitimization of the term. Hundreds of students and faculty spoke out against the university for allowing Shapiro to speak, saying that it was an attack on the campus and labeling him as a “Nazi” despite him being an Orthodox Jew and a descendent of grandparents killed in the Holocaust.

Students and faculty are convinced that either the U.S. Supreme Court is flawed or that previous rulings hold that “hate speech” is an exception to the First Amendment. While the former opinion is based on pure unfaithfulness toward the Supreme Court, the latter opinion is one that is only true under very particular circumstances that require assessment on a case by case basis. Some exceptions to the First Amendment that concern speech that is perceived to be hateful, offensive or violent include: “fighting words” (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942)), “true threats” (Watts v. United States, 394 U.S. 705 (1969)) and speech which is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action” (Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969)). In short, as long as a person’s speech does not violate these rulings, it can be as hateful and offensive as any person could possibly perceive it to be.

With restrictions on free speech being clearly set by the U.S. Supreme Court, the question remains as to why an increasing number of undergraduate students believe that it is acceptable to shut down controversial speech. What happened to universities teaching the classic liberal idea of, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”? The answer, as the academic organization Heterodox Academy would argue, is that university thought has become so politically homogenous toward the left that it has become an orthodoxy. Students who fall victim to this orthodoxy not only believe that speech which challenges the established doctrine is objectively wrong, but that speech which does so deserves to be shut down, even if it requires violence. And while private universities, such as Colgate, have full liberty in restricting the speech of students any way they deem fit, I find it difficult to argue that this restriction of speech is not contributing to the formation of orthodoxies on campuses, the prevention of intellectual progress toward objective truth and the growing misconception that hate speech, whether it be actual hate speech or speech declared hate speech for political purposes, is not free speech.

Contact Connor Madalo at [email protected]