The campus speech wars have now arrived at Hood College in my hometown of Frederick. (I’ve written about these often as to other campuses.) The furor over a large hall display by the college Republican club, in a space given over for rotating use among student clubs, is covered by Katherine Heerbrandt in an early report here at Frederick Extra and by Nancy Lavin at the Frederick News-Post. Among the most controversial elements are a quote from pundit Ben Shapiro claiming that “Transgender people are unfortunately suffering from a mental illness that is deeply harmful,” and posters terming abortion “genocide.”
This episode has played out so far along a familiar script, with conservative students saying the most abrasive arguments seen in the display were meant to stir discussion, should not necessarily be taken as their own views, and pose a test of the college’s free speech principles. Some offended students and alums have demanded that the Hood administration take down the display before its scheduled removal next Tuesday.
A few words about the problems I see on both sides in online discussion (borrowing from what I wrote earlier there):
Dear Republican club students:
Much of the content in this display exemplifies simple-minded, talk-show-caliber conservative sloganeering, and some of it (see above) is pointedly insulting to some members of the Hood community likely to read it. Hood is an institution of higher learning with standards of rigor and civility to uphold. Please find better examples of intellectually sound conservatism, or expect to lose the battle of persuasion.
Also, if you post memes calling groups of your fellow citizens and Hood students mentally ill or supporters of genocide, you must expect that they, and many of the rest of us, will judge you and think less of you for doing that.
Finally, Hood as a private institution is as a background matter entitled to set its own rules for expression, and the First Amendment does not bind its hands in the same way that it would U-Md. or Towson. It may decide that some controversial views are okay to vent and others are not. There is one very important exception here, however, which is that if the government or the law are twisting Hood’s arm to crack down on speech then the First Amendment and its principles may come into direct play after all.
Dear offended Hood students, alums, and others:
Some of you may not have thought out all the implications of your comments and demands for the intellectual life of the university, which depends on a wide freedom to air ideas and assertions with which others strongly disagree.
Thus several of you have voiced versions of the slogan “this is not free speech, this is hate speech.” “Hate speech” has no status as a concept in American law; speech that is otherwise protected by law does not lose it simply because it is hateful or embodies hate. Although Hood as a private institution is free to play around with the concept if it wants, its ambiguities, subjectivity, and resulting inconsistency of application are among the reasons the law cannot force Hood to draw distinctions based on your having dubbed something hate speech.
Others assert that speech is violence. No. Speech is not violence. Violence is violence and speech is speech. Whether by design or not, the “speech=violence” slogan leads down a road that ends by rationalizing the use of violence against speech, since it can be framed in that case as self-defense.
A related assertion is that to be insulted, overlooked, ignored, or misunderstood is to be erased or to have one’s “very right to exist” at stake. No. Being insulted, no matter how nastily, is not the same as being physically annihilated. Once again, to confound the two is to raise the stakes in a case of insult to the same as they would be in a case of murder, the implication being that the keeping of peace requires the legal banning, not merely the condemnation, of insult.
One Frederick public figure asserts, in response to the display, that “Free speech does not give you the right to marginalize and attempt to demonize another person …[or] the right to propagate misinformation and fake statistics.”
Again, Hood as a private institution is free to set its own rules. But no one should take the above statement for an instant as a correct assertion about freedom of speech in the outside world where First Amendment principles are fully in play. There, on the outside (as to some extent within state-run universities) free speech definitely does include the right to adhere to and promote ideologies and systems of thinking that marginalize or demonize other persons. Nor is there a government power (absent some special circumstances such as fraud in commerce) to punish the propagation of misinformation and fake statistics in political, religious, or social argument. If every book that included misinformation, fake statistics, “marginalization” and so forth were removed from the Hood College library, few books would remain. If every person who uttered or wrote such things were removed from campus, Hood (like every other college) would soon be bereft of students and faculty.
Finally, for now, several local observers, again including public figures, have suggested that Hood may face liability under Title IX or other federal laws if it does not require the prompt removal of the display. The basic logic is that the students’ statements are said to create a so-called hostile environment based on transgender status or another protected class, and the university is legally obliged to act to end that hostile environment. To those who make this argument: be aware that by doing so, you are transforming the situation from one in which the students may not have First Amendment rights to one in which yes, they may have important rights of that sort. If the government or private parties filing complaints under its laws are trying to get them punished for their speech — and that includes arm-twisting the Hood administration into acting — then it may be that their right to quote Ben Shapiro rises to a constitutional dignity it would never have acquired otherwise. In that case, the Republican students might see a losing position turn into a legal winner.
I do not presume to prescribe what Hood should do, except that it should consider ignoring the voices who urge that federal law requires it to remove the display or punish the students.
Update Apr. 21 via The Frederick Extra: In her statement, Hood President Andrea Chapdelaine says the college will not remove the exhibit before its scheduled take-down on Tuesday, but that “I have requested that we follow College procedures to determine if these messages have violated policy, with appropriate sanctions to follow should such a determination be made.” Hood College Policy Statement 55, cited by critics of the display, is a broad ban on acts of discrimination and harassment. It can be found here (as policy statement) and here (as brochure).