In recent years headlines appear commonly concerning the rise of racist speech and controversial speeches on university campuses along with unsuccessful and condemned attempts to regulate it. In his article, Charles Lawrence argues about the First Amendment rights, which on one hand serve as the foundation of American democracy and can be a tool for protection for the oppressed, but on the other hand, are often used as a defense for heinous and racist speech meant to attack others. Freedom of speech is a vital component of American society and should be protected, but it cannot be utilized either legally or in campus policies when it is used for vicious purposes, thus requiring boundaries and regulation to avoid promoting of racism.
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Speech and Racism
Free speech is the foundation of American democratic society, and there are numerous reasons for protecting this right including the benefit to those seeking to establish their liberties. Lawrence argues that “such protection reinforces our society’s commitment to tolerance as a value” (Lawrence 1). Protection from any legal regulation inherently causes the community to face any issues with unwelcome use of free speech.
Unfortunately, violent and hate organizations and individuals often use this constitutional right as a defense for their words and displays. Tolerance of such racist speech inherently causes minorities to bear the burden of free speech for the benefit of the whole society, which is unfair. However, free speech inherently serves as a medium for minorities to rally support and voice grievances. Therefore, any attempts to prohibit or regulate speech may suppress various types of speech, including those who may be unfavorable to individuals in positions of power at any time in history.
Attempts to control racist speech and incidents, particularly on campuses, inherently put free speech on the same plane with the aspect of racism. Lawrence states that the situation is “framed as one in which the liberty of free speech is in conflict with the elimination of racism” (Lawrence 1). He further argues that it provides bigots with a moral high ground since they can claim a violation of fundamental rights if they are challenged, contributing to racist rhetoric.
The conversation changes to focus on the freedom of speech rights rather than the original topic of racism, with victims being shown little attention and understanding regarding their social struggles as second-class citizens due to factors they are unable to challenge. Meanwhile, when universities provide the very same Constitutional protection to minorities, they meet severe criticism from all sides of the political spectrum. There is little discernable difference between racism and hate speech, and the institutionalization of such ideology inherently promotes it. Therefore, it is the civic duty of the government and organizations to restrict the spread of the bigoted ideas through speech.
First Amendment Rights and Supreme Court
The biggest challenge on the subject is the legal basis and extent of protection for the First Amendment. Lawrence presents evidence that “the Supreme Court has held that words which “by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are not protected by the First Amendment” (Lawrence 1). Therefore, when racist speech applies to individual assaults and face-to-face insults, it is no longer protected since it is done with the purpose of harassment and offense to cause injury.
Furthermore, if the premise of the First Amendment is to foster speech and ensure security, then protection of hateful speech is counterintuitive. Racist speech often becomes an assault and, in some sense, a preemptive strike, which causes a devastating blow to minorities and leaving them few opportunities to reply or voice their idea. Thus, First Amendment protection of hate speech is illogical since it serves to injure victims rather than open dialogue and a search for answers.
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A well-known Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education is not commonly considered to be regarding speech, but it offers a perspective on the topic in the context of education. Lawrence argues, “If we understand the necessity of eliminating the system of signs and symbols that signal the inferiority of blacks, then we should hesitate before proclaiming that all racist speech that stops short of physical violence must be defended” (Lawrence 1).
The social environment during the case demonstrated that racism and segregation were meant to injure and ultimately affected the psychological state of black children and the soul of the whole African-American population who was subjected to the burden of humiliation and verbal assault at schools. Therefore, when enabling First Amendment protection to the racist free speech, it is both, a violation of the Civil Rights Act which ended segregation as well as promoting the similar attacks and segregation that was the status quo in the mid-20th century.
The counterargument to the outlined argument in this paper is that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of expression and cannot be limited in any circumstance, even in instances of hate speech or on school campuses. Derek Bok, the president of Harvard University argues, “to disapprove of a particular form of communication, however, is not enough to justify prohibiting it” (Bok 1).
In his article, Bok, similar to Lawrence, realizes the vital struggle between free speech and fostering a community based on mutual respect. However, implementing any regulation, no matter the purpose, is neither effective, humane, or legal. It leads to other forms of expression from those who wish to demonstrate their views, which causes these mediums to be marked as offensive. Eventually, communication will be essentially censored, in clear violation of the First Amendment.
The use of racist or hate speech and symbols fall under the guaranteed rights of the First Amendment. Bok states, “Supreme Court’s rulings, as I read them, the display of swastikas or Confederate flags clearly falls within the protection of the free-speech clause of the First Amendment and cannot be forbidden simply because it offends the feelings of many members of the community” (Bok 2). The political and social status quo for the last decades remains in favor of supporting free speech, especially in regard to all agencies of the government such as public campuses.
While private universities can implement policies, it is ineffective to do so as it is ingenuine and tests the fabric of the community. The best solution is to ignore such demonstrations and approach with tolerance and education on helping such individuals to understand the impact of their speech on others, all without the violation of fundamental rights of the First Amendment.
To some extent, Bok is correct about the dangers of censorship and the potential consequences of regulation. However, it justifies some type of intervention on behalf of authority as “carefully drafted university regulations would bar the use of words as assault weapons and leave unregulated even the most heinous of ideas when those ideas are presented at times and places and in manners that provide an opportunity for reasoned rebuttal or escape from immediate injury” (Lawrence 3).
Administration must encourage and support freedom of speech, but only for the purposes of debate, discussion, and research, in some manner of civility. Universities have no right to limit opinions, and in fact, should provide and insinuate more open platforms for this, including highly controversial speakers and topics of discussion. However, the regulation only applies in cases of deliberate harassment and attack in non-academic contexts where the other party is not only insulted but feels violated and unsafe as well. This justifies intervention and remains important to remove the burden of free speech from minorities who already undergo a number of other societal challenges.
While the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech as a vital aspect of democracy deserving protection, it should not serve a legal basis for the defense of hateful speech and allow for minor regulation in public places if used for incitement of violence and harassment. It becomes a tool of mitigating racism and upholding the values of the country which Constitutionally protects not only free speech but equality as well. Choosing to avoid this topic is continuing to give a platform to racism and demonstrates the ignorance of society to the struggles of minorities who deserve the support rather than condemnation of the system.
Bok, Derek. Protecting Freedom of Expression on the Campus. 1991. Web.
Lawrence, Charles, R. “The Debates Over Placing Limits on Racist Speech Must Not Ignore the Damage It Does to Its Victims”. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1989, pp. 1-4.