Speakers and purveyors of reprehensible speech can be motivated by many things. Sometimes it is profit, sometimes self-gratification, but quite often it is a simple need for attention.
It is, therefore, ironic and somewhat self-defeating that I find myself having to write in response to the recent behaviors of some members of our university community. Suffice it to say that they know who they are, as do you.
I will not, however, further their purpose any more than is necessary by identifying them, their causes or their antics. Instead, I will address my comments to you — the informed, the enlightened, the tolerant.
Applying First Amendment principles on a university campus has never been easy. By its nature, a university attracts individuals from many states, nations and walks of life.
Most come from backgrounds that appreciate and treasure values of inclusiveness, unity and diversity. A few do not. So what should we do as to the outliers?
In some corners of the world, speakers of unpopular or offensive thoughts get pummeled with fists, or worse. In this country, we pride ourselves on meeting such individuals not with fists but with words — not words intended to drown those speakers out, but words intended to expose their hate-filled messages to the cleansing effects of logic, reason and commonsense.
And ironically, and counter-intuitively, the greater the stench of spoken or written words, the more it is incumbent upon the rest of us to choose our counter-words and actions wisely, lest one day we be the speaker or writer of an unpopular message. This is especially so on a university campus, which exists for the sole purpose of spreading knowledge through reasoned discourse, debate and analysis.
Does the First Amendment have limits? Of course it does.
Whenever a speaker accompanies his words with acts of physical aggression, he has crossed the line. Whenever a speaker directly threatens another, he has crossed the line.
And whenever a speaker incites others to go out and commit acts of lawlessness, he has crossed the line. Fortunately, the university has tools to deal with such harassing conduct, including its Student Code of Conduct and Nondiscrimination and Anti-harassment Policy.
While the university will vigorously defend free speech rights, it will not tolerate behavior that violates its rules and policies. In particular, the University’s Dean of Students Office and Office of Institutional Equity both have personnel with specialized expertise in managing these types of issues in a reasonable manner.
I would ask members of the university community to remember that upholding the law and our campus policies is not equivalent to endorsing any individual’s message. While I understand that it is not easy to hear or read reprehensible speech and not want to react in some way, what sets most of the rest of us apart from those who preach hate is our ability to act and react responsibly.
I know that this has been a trying time for the university, and I want you to know how very much I appreciate your restraint, forbearance and good judgment. For this, I thank you.
— Kendal Washington White is interim dean of students. She can be reached at email@example.com.