Responding to Bigotry and Intergroup Strife on Campus:
Guide for College and University Administrators
'Free Speech,' Intergroup
and Hate on Campuses
Responding to Hate Speech on Campus
It is impossible to prevent all extremist speakers from delivering hate speeches on campus. However,
when a known hate speaker comes to campus. the university or college administration should not remain silent.
University and college administrators have the right (and responsibility) to speak out against and condemn hate speech. The administration should issue an immediate statement condemning the speaker's views as intolerant and unacceptable on campus.
Administrators need to be specific, direct, responsive and concerned in their public statements. They should mention the speaker by name and condemn the speech's content. They should also offer support and programs for those affected by the speech and hold meetings with those students who organized the event.
Such initiatives should seek to maintain an educational dialogue with the sponsors and avoid actions that marginalize them and might further inflame a tense situation. Of course, the administration's immediate and prime concern is to ensure the safety of all members of the campus community.
Presidents and other senior administrators similarly should be outspoken in those instances in which hate groups place paid advertisements, paid inserted supplements, opinion/editorial articles and letters to the editor in campus newspapers and other
publications. In recent years, this has become a favorite, high-profile tactic of the Holocaust-denial movement, which has succeeded in placing such materials in more than 200 campus publications from 1990 through 2000.
In those cases in which campus administrators have stood aside and not spoken out, conflict tends to deepen and spread,
sharply polarizing the campus and inviting extensive outside media scrutiny that can prove damaging to an institution's reputation. Prompt and outspoken administrative statements, especially from the president, help to provide closure and moral certainty, allowing the campus to begin to put the issue at rest, while at the same time buttressing the institution's public image.
Speech Codes in University Policies
Hateful speech is not only a symptom of subordination, but can also be its source. The repetition of certain images and words reinforces ethnic and cultural imagery. Since childhood, we are all exposed to a plethora of stereotypes, stock characters, stories, narratives and plots in which women are ornaments and minorities are happy-go-lucky, stupid or licentious.
Society uses such images to create a social reality in which minorities are always at risk; one in which each new slight or injury reverberates against a history of similar ones. After years of repetition, offenses are aimed as much at groups as at individuals. Some acts, such as painting a swastika on a Jewish student center or burning a cross on the lawn of an African-American residence, gain a power that most insults directed at individuals lack -- the power to marginalize/victimize entire groups of people.
Words create characters, images, expectations and deeply rooted subconscious assumptions. Abusive words aimed at aspects of a person's core identity can seriously wound and particularly damage young people in the process of figuring our their own identity during college.
The federal and state court decisions regarding university and college speech/conduct codes suggest that these codes need to be very carefully drafted in order to pass judicial muster.
Whenever someone commits a hate crime or utters a prejudicial remark, it harms the victim and potentially terrorizes an entire group. Therefore, it is important to realize that there are both advantages and disadvantages to limiting speech. The arguments against campus speech codes are better understood because of court decisions.
When these codes use broad and vague phrases, they limit not only destructive language, but also language that enjoys constitutional protection. It is practically impossible to draft a speech code that cannot be construed against speech no one means to ban. As a result, many institutions of higher education have dropped their existing codes or abandoned their efforts to adopt one.
However, despite the problems speech codes raise, there are some advantageous goals underlying the attempts to develop codes barring derogatory and hurtful epithets. These efforts seek to serve educational purposes and provide an expression of an institution's commitment to the defense of victims of hatred.
While the speech-code issue will continue to be a battlefield in the culture wars between left and right on campus, it is necessary that presidents and administrators, with or without the aid of campus speech codes, have the willingness to take strong and directive stands when issues of
Campus presidents and administrators can learn important lessons from recent court cases contesting speech codes. In every instance, the codes that provoked challenges were ambitiously and sweepingly worded.
ADL does not recommend broad, sweeping free-speech codes, because such codes raise serious constitutional problems. Instead, the League suggests that colleges and universities develop constitutionally sound policies that will serve the important institutional objective of protecting the victims of hate. These policies might:
- Distinguish residence halls from classroom settings. Residence hall rooms become students' homes. Under established free-speech doctrines, students should have the right to escape from being exposed to others' expression by looking for refuge in their own homes. A policy that disciplines students for hateful acts against other students in residence halls would most likely decrease the majority of all hate-speech incidents within the regulatory scope of college administration without violating traditional free-speech principles.
- Emphasize the prohibition of hostile conduct or behavior that "incites immediate violence and is likely to prompt such violence," rather than expressive offensive speech.
- Increase the penalties for alcohol-related hate acts or utterances. Most campus-conduct codes allow the imposition of disciplinary sanctions for disorderly conduct or violations of alcohol and drug policies. It may be constitutionally permissible to deal with racist acts or utterances as an added component to be considered when imposing penalties for student code violations.
- Increase the penalties for any behavioral conduct already forbidden in campus regulations if that behavior was motivated clearly by bigotry.
University and college officials need to demonstrate to all how the institution's interests are at stake when minority students fear assault or insult, leading to demoralization and high dropout rates.
Even though many existing speech codes have failed in court, campus administrators should not be prevented or inhibited to act and speak out against racist, sexist, homophobic or anti-Semitic expression. Campus administrators should not tolerate or accept abusive discourse without a vigorous response.
Those who misuse their freedom of expression to offend, demean or insult members of the academic community need to comprehend that their words are unacceptable in a civilized atmosphere, whether or not they are protected by the First Amendment.
While administrators at private institutions have more freedom of action to regulate behavior than do their counterparts at public institutions, both can and should provide firm and unambiguous leadership in this area.
Next: Effective Intervention to Deal with Hate on Campus