In defending free speech, we must articulate without hesitation how we can be crticial of speech values when it turns into hate speech or vitriolic speech. It is a perversion of our right to free speech to argue all speech is created equal or should be used as a tool of violence.
The University should not ban speech
Even though we may disagree vehemently with what is being said, the University must not fall into the practice of attempting to ban speech on this campus. Peer institutions, including the University of California system, have made this mistake.
People who call upon the University to ban certain kinds of speech should seriously consider whether they think it’s a good idea to empower any government entity to ban or censor speech.
This does not mean that students or stakeholders must accept all speech without vigorous debate and pushback. In fact, the University’s administration should stand in solidarity with students when the situation requires it.
UNC should push for informed consent
While the University must protect and allow free speech to flow, it cannot ignore that some speech is inherently harmful or degrading to students.
The University must work toward making sure that where hate speech occurs, students are informed and able to consent to being confronted by such speech. Univerity leaders should be capable of making these judgments.
This does not mean that free speech is not allowed. On the contrary, this means students are aware of how and when to engage.
This is not a ruse telling students they do not have to engage in hard discussions because inevitably we all do, some more than others.
Free speech is not equally available to all
The ability to speak, to challenge authority, is often a privilege instead of a right. Free speech is not as available to immigrant day laborers and refugees who not only invisibly maintain our public spaces, but also cook, clean and fulfill our basic necessities.
When people argue for free speech as a right, they often mischaracterize it as something that we all have the ability to exercise freely with impunity. This has never been the case since the enshrinement of the Bill of Rights in our constitution.
The administration, to the best of its ability, should therefore keep in mind the voices that cannot easily speak and attempt to give space for their speech. It should also be made clear that systemic marginalization of certain voices is not the same as unpopular opinion.
Speech has trajectory
State law prohibiting the removal of, among other items, Confederate memorabilia across North Carolina, and the University’s 16-year moratorium on the renaming of buildings, while not explicit, are measures to cease conversation. These actions limit speech in roundabout ways, and should be opposed vociferously.
Both of these instances are examples of the administration and state telling students to end their discussion — to disengage. When a conversation is occurring, taking actions to stop the conversation is contrary to the values of free speech.
While the only clear rule is that the University should not ban speech, it should consider promoting speech and its own scholarship as well. For instance, Chancellor Carol Folt failed in her responsibility as an advocate for students by not coming to or speaking against the Confederate rally.
Folt does not harm the right to free speech by acknowledging the scholarship of her peers and formulating an opinion. As Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
If we can, we should speak forcefully
Debate the issue, not the person. The epitome of debate is to locate understanding and new information useful to either strengthen an opinion or capitulate and agree with the other side. In the arena of debate we shouldn’t be concerned with negotiating one’s personhood. When we debate the Confederate memorial, sympathizers of the Confederacy would be wise to drop all mention of the pathology, personhood or presence of Black students on this campus. All students must recognize that engaging in speech different from their own opinions is a part of growing and learning. It is important even if we disagree strongly.
We are privileged to attend a place of higher learning that, despite its many flaws, has maintained its position among the very best not only in the country, but also in the world.
Such an environment has been especially groomed by a long lineage of free, intelligent and critical thinkers, activists, and idealists who fought for free and fair speech.
But when vitriolic speech happens on our campus, it tests these values. If we accept use of hate speech without contesting it, it is assumed that this speech is culturally acceptable or permissible.
As the saying goes, free speech does not mean we should say whatever, whenever. We should push back against speech that is uninformed, hateful or violent. Doing so is ultimately vital to protecting the value of free speech.