Students learn to respect free speech, fight hateful words
Published: Friday, October 25, 2013
Updated: Friday, October 25, 2013 00:10
“Free speech at public universities and colleges is at once the most obvious and the most paradoxical of constitutional principles,” guest lecturer Kelly Garrett quoted from the First Amendment Center, sighed and reflected, “that’s where it gets complicated.”
Garrett, director of the LGBTQ Center at Brown University, came to UConn’s Rainbow Center this Thursday, celebrating 15 years of promoting social justice nationally. The lecture was entitled “Free Speech and Hate Groups: Where do we draw the line?”
In the true nature of the event, Garrett prompted her lecture by establishing that much of what she was saying would be guided by her personal experiences and opinion, and that those in the audience are encouraged to participate and contribute in the dialogue with their own perspective, openness and civility.
Garrett established in her opening remarks that the goal of the event was to explore how to respond when hate reaches our campus, an issue that dealt with daily whether it is a snide side remark or a constitutional controversy case that incites media coverage.
For example: if a university is deciding on a keynote speaker for an MLK Memorial Lecture, and a speaker with an excellent track record for civil rights issues but has expressed anti-LGBTQ views in the past is suggested, should they be chosen? Or if a recognized conservative group on campus wants to hold a “Straight Pride Rally” should they be allowed, and if so, what should be the parameters? These are not just rhetorical situations, but issues that Garrett has struggled with.
Both these controversial questions and answers “rock us at the core.” It is generally agreed upon that speech must, in some way, be regulated, but debate ensues over what, when and how. This line is often drawn through the creation of parameters. For instance, as issues such as gay rights were becoming more volatile around the 1980s here at UConn, the university felt the need to establish a speech code policy as a possible solution to prevent hateful outbursts. However, extreme provisions such as the banning of “inappropriately directed laughter” clearly became problematic and were unable to hold up in court.
Such speech codes have become the most controversial, yet also mainstream, way to maintain a balance of free expression and productive, non-hateful free speech on college campuses. Current UConn students and students nationwide would be surprised to discover that even today they are subjected to certain parameters they may or may not have known they agreed to. For example, the reason so many opinionated, outside groups are gathering in front of the Student Union is not just because it is a high-traffic area, but more importantly our “free speech zone.”
These policies are put in place for the protections of students. They are not necessarily something to be resentful about, but definitely wary of. Many fear that the issue of free speech is being diluted to a code of conduct standard. Yet, as many people argue, the whole country is a free speech zone. A university is not an island, and as the First Amendment Center states, “justices have subscribed to the view that truth is discovered in the marketplace of ideas, culled from cacophony of diverse views.” It is undeniable that the root of academic inquiry, enrichment and intellectual growth comes from the fostering of ideas through free debate.
When hearing about a possibly controversial protest or demonstration on campus, Garrett does not ask herself how to stop it, but instead, “how can we make this positive?” It’s important to have these difficult conversations yet to make sure it’s done in a productive manner. Students should be challenged by their institutions to fight speech with speech in the spirit of academic inquiry. Instead of universities codifying students’ rights arbitrarily, they should focus on educating students of what their rights exactly are and how to use them to be responsible citizens.