The discussion of free speech and hate speech on college campuses has heightened since recent outbursts in objection to political speakers on campuses like UC Berkeley and California State University at Los Angeles.
In response to that climate, the University of Redlands hosted an event Nov. 30 in the Orton Center by KPCC, a multi-platform Southern California Public Radio that aims at providing the highest quality of news.
More than 70 people gathered to hear a panel of four address the current discourse surrounding free speech and hate speech on college campuses.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, a reporter for KPCC for 17 years, moderated and conducted the discussion.
The panel included Kamal Bilal, president of Associated Students at the University of Redlands; Ari Cohn, free speech lawyer and director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education; Andrew Wall, dean of the school of education at the University of Redlands; and Marcela Ramirez, doctoral student at UC Riverside in higher education administration and policy.
Lopez asked the panel to give their own definition of hate speech and free speech.
Wall said engaging in conversations about controversial ideas in a different public space is sometimes difficult, but on a college campus it ties with the purpose of the institution.
“While we hear on the press events of explosions of emotion and contest at college campuses, those exact kind of dialogues are taking place in the classroom,” Wall said.
“Professors and students set up situations where you can engage in controversial ideas where different points of view come across.”
Wall said the structural promise of the university is to create environments for free expression.
Ramirez defined free speech as her ability to talk about her truth, existence, the ways she perceives the world and ways the world treats her as a woman of color.
Ramirez said hate speech becomes questionable when it inspires others to commit acts of violence.
The debate between free speech and hate speech revolves around how they are distinguishable from one another.
Brett Geraty, general counsel for the University of Redlands, reminded the audience that free speech and hate speech are protected by the Constitution.
Aside from a few exclusions of speech like lewd, obscene and defamatory, “hate speech is protected speech,” Geraty said.
Geraty said that when hate speech crosses over and begins to incite violence, it has the ability of no longer being covered by freedom of speech and becomes unlawful.
“There needs to be imminent danger of unlawful action, there needs to be an intent by the speaker of inciting unlawful action and there needs to be the likelihood that unlawful action will take place,” Geraty said.
Ramirez reflected on the dispute her colleagues had at UC Berkeley when conservative activist Milo Yiannopoulos attended in September.
“Colleagues of mine who were trying to protect students from protesters who are inciting violence were grabbed by the UCPD, places in which they work for,” Ramirez said.
“They are there trying to protect students and they are the ones getting grabbed.”
The University of Redlands Young Americans of Freedom chapter hosted Ben Shapiro, conservative political commentator and editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire, on their campus in March.
This event was part of the spring political series that brings a variety of political perspectives to the campus.
Bilal said he did not agree with 90 percent of what Shapiro said, but found something worth learning.
“There are going to be millions of Ben Shapiros in the workforce and in my daily life that I will have to deal with,” Bilal said.
“Before I can change anyone’s mind, I need to understand what points they are making and where they are coming from.”
Kathy Ogren, provost at the University of Redlands, said it is the university’s responsibility to ensure that an event is safe and that they provide adequate security.
Ogren said Shapiro came with his own set of expectations, limiting opportunities for fluid speech back from the audience members.
“Those members of our community who wanted to meet that opportunity of speech with different speech organized a dance party,” Ogren said.
“Because sometimes the way you respond to speech is with irony.”
Ramirez said there are plenty of forms of resistance that are not just words and do not incite violence.
Instead they are expressions of joy and livelihood that reinforce one’s ability to live life the way they want to.
Wall said that although students have every right to engage in free speech and hate speech, the university’s role is to help elevate dialogue in society.
“Elevating dialogue is to rise above the worst part of our character and to have a better part of our character emerge,” Wall said.
“Instead of inciting and getting close to a barrier of creating violence, we can try to encourage people to elevate their dialogue in ways that would have a meaningful response on important topics.”
The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” came up in discussion.
Cohn said this statement is false and words do in fact have the power to hurt.
“There are many things most people will agree are hateful, but there are also subjective individual feelings for what is hateful,” Cohn said.
“In Cohen vs. California, the case dealing with profanity, said one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric. What is hateful to one person might be mere criticism to another.”
The discussion closed with a question of where this debate is headed in the future.
Ramirez said the future rests on the original goal of higher education, which has since been lost.
“Higher education has to go back to its calling,” Ramirez said.
“We were supposed to be this marketplace of ideas, we were supposed to be a place where highly contested dialogue could exist, we were supposed to be a place where people were free to be who they could be, and now we have seen this is not the case.”
This event was part one of a three part series exploring hate crimes and hate speech on college campuses.
Information for future events can be found at scpr.org/events/kpcc-in-person.
Layla Abbas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.