Letter to the Editor: Dean of students addresses offensive hate speech on campus
It happens every year. In addition to controversial subject matter displays on the UA Mall, itinerant campus preachers arrive and set up shop near the heaviest pedestrian traffic—Alumni Plaza and the Canyon [walkway by CC’s Coffee House] near the Student Union Memorial Center. Some share messages of inclusiveness while others spew venom at specific members of our university community. Students, faculty, staff and visitors are rightfully offended by what they hear, and that disgust is frequently reported to me. Many argue that these speakers are operating under the “guise” of the First Amendment and must be barred from campus, arrested or otherwise have their speech censured or restrained.
I understand the impact the messaging has on us all—it is hurtful, counter to who we are as an institution and community, causes concern for personal safety and distress for targeted groups. However, what the university cannot do is attempt to silence a speaker’s vile message based on a perception that it crosses a line that can neither be readily identified nor defined. Those who insult others do not operate under the “guise” of the First Amendment; they operate under it in the purest sense. Those who want the university to muzzle speakers based on their messages should remember that one day, they might want to advance a controversial position and may need to rely on the very protections they are seeking to deny others.
So, do we have no choice other than to be held hostage by these dispensers of hate? Hardly. To the contrary, the balance of power lies squarely on our side as those who promote inclusivity vastly outnumber those who reject it. In addition, there are multiple strategies for effectively dealing with hateful messages. The most obvious is denying the speaker an audience or changing your route to class or work. Address hateful speech with inclusive speech such as the Women’s Resource Center students countering an itinerant preacher with “You Deserve …” signs.
It is a fair question for students to ask why they must move from their comfortable spot on the Mall to avoid offensive speech. The short answer is that you do not have to move. Other options include tuning the speakers out, listening or peacefully engaging. Please be assured that the university will act to curtail conduct that may be unlawful (e.g., hitting and other physical contact, etc.). It will not relocate or silence speakers who operate within its reasonable time, space and manner regulations because their words are hurtful and unintelligent. That’s our Constitution, and thankfully, we don’t get to choose which parts to follow or reject based on mere convenience or personal preference.
My commitment to the campus community is to ensure that we are responsive to the needs of those impacted, and to that end, I invite you to participate in the Fearless Expression: Religion, Politics, and Free Speech at the University of Arizona Forum on Wednesday, April 6 from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., in Gallagher Theater—Student Union Memorial Center, where a panel of student leaders, faculty and staff will discuss key issues and engage the audience in a conversation.
“Our freedom of speech is freedom or death. We got to fight the powers that be.”
— Fight the Power by Public Enemy
Kendal Washington White is the Dean of Students, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, and Deputy Title IX Coordinator.