Valley Voices

On campus, all speech matters

“Free speech is meant to protect unpopular speech. Popular speech, by definition, needs no protection.”

– Neal Boortz

My students are almost universal in their opinion that “hate speech” should be banned from our campus. They argue that hate speech is hurtful and potentially provocative and could serve to incite violence causing significant damage. The problem with hate speech is that it causes some of us to become uncomfortable.

mark harris
Mark T. Harris

One can argue that the very discomforting nature of unpopular rhetoric is what makes it so valuable. After all, if throughout history we only allowed perspectives to be shared by those with whom the majority agreed, we would have suppressed the voices of those in this country who advocated for the abolition of slavery; or women’s suffrage; or an integrated military; or rights of same-sex couples.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution explicitly states that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” Short and sweet and to the point, the Founding Fathers wished to establish in the preeminent constitutional amendment that the rights of everyone to be heard would be sacrosanct.

After all, the protection of free speech was contained in the very first amendment, not the second, third or fourth.

Why does it bother us so much that everyone should have the right to be heard?

Just because someone has a right to share their viewpoint, nothing compels the rest of us to listen. The ultimate right to be insulated from ideas we are repulsed by or viewpoints we find unacceptable is for us to individually shut them out. It really is as simple as that.

No one compels us to access an objectionable website or open an objectionable attachment or view a “comment” that offends us. Each of us chooses to access both acceptable and objectionable viewpoints and the constitution is clear in that it protects speech without regard to its content.

With very few exceptions, government must allow a wide spectrum of speech and is limited to restricting only the “time, place and manner” for that speech.

On university campuses, it is even more essential that a wide range of views be allowed a voice. At its very essence, a college campus is an environment inhabited almost exclusively by adults who are present to be “educated,” which by definition includes the process of receiving “intellectual, moral and social” instruction.

As a university lecturer, I always begin my courses by informing students that I will not provide them with “the” truth but instead a range of perspectives from which they can glean “their” truth. George Washington was both a “Founding Father” of our nation and an owner of hundreds of slaves. Do those two historical facts render him a “patriot” or “fiend?”

Maybe he was both and maybe he was neither, but a university campus should be an environment that has a full and uninhibited exploration of perspectives presented to the entire campus community.

Some argue that the violence accompanying the expression of certain unpopular views or the high cost associated with ensuring safety and order during the time those views are being expressed, is the justification for exercising the prior restraint of unpopular speech.

To those people, I suggest that the Constitution is clear in its mandate that all speech is protected, including so-called “hate” speech.

University campuses should continue to welcome the expression of all views, specially those that make us most uncomfortable. By being exposed to views different from our own, we may actually learn that “All Speech Matters” in a way that expands our thinking and improves each of us.

Mark T. Harris is director of pre-law studies, University of California, Merced. He just completed service on the California Fair Employment and Housing Council as an appointee of California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.

Free Speech on Campus: How Free Is It?

Who: Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of University of California, Berkeley Law, Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law and co-author of “Free Speech on Campus.”

What: Presentation, student panel discussion, reception following

When: Tuesday, 4:30-5:30 p.m.

Where: UC Merced Classroom and Office Building 2, Room 110; reception following in Room 290

Details: (209) 201-6590