Across the country, an old discussion is growing and dialogue is being exchanged over what types of speech the First Amendment does and should protect —particularly when it comes to religious speech.
Colleges are becoming ground zero for a discussion about the limits of free speech when it comes to certain topics, as schools and students seek to reconcile the sometimes divergent goals of fostering tolerance and inclusivity with free speech and academic debate.
The debate was on full display last August, when the California Assembly passed a motion that called for administrators across California universities to stop any anti-Semitic speech on their campus.
A month later, the University of California Student Association passed its own resolution condemning the Assembly’s motion, accusing legislators of confusing the idea of criticism against Israel and other beliefs as hatred against the people from the area or practitioners of the Jewish religion.
“You know, to say something Anti-Zionist isn’t necessarily anti-Semitic,” said Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion foundation. “And while Anti-Semitism is very rude, it’s not like it’s aimed at a specific person. People should judge by their actions, not their words or their beliefs.”
California’s HR 35 arose shortly after the university system considered enacting hate speech codes in response to a task force’s research into campus culture for Jewish and Muslim students. The task force modeled its recommendations on hate speech laws in Europe; the recommendation was ultimately rejected as well following opposition from students and free speech groups.
Zahra Billoo, executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ San Francisco Bay area branch, said that she has seen incidents of Arab and Muslim students being silenced in terms of anti-Israel speech because of the same confusion between political speech and what is considered hate speech.
Other campuses have been dealing with the confusion as well.
Earlier this year, the University of Minnesota Campus Atheists hosted a “Draw Mohammad” day that drew the ire of members of the university’s Muslim Student Association.
And in November, an event hosted by Duke Students for Justice in Palestine was vandalized by a member of the Jewish Student Union who was upset at the display, The Duke Chronicle reported
The student destroyed a display of the wall that separates Palestine from Israel, kicking over a table in the process. He eventually apologized for the incident.
Garrett Epps, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, said that while it’s extremely rare to find a case of religious speech being restricted in America, it has become practice in other countries, especially European countries following World War II, during which there was constant vilification of Jews and extreme anti-Semitic views.
Many, like Barker, believe religious speech shouldn’t be treated differently from any other type of speech, even if some people find it offense.
“Is that what our society is, that we all just have to say ‘oh, they don’t like being insulted so we won’t insult them?’” Dan Barker said about responses to messages that are critical of religions. “Some people should be insulted, some should be ridiculed. Some views are ridiculous.”
Covering the debate
The debate on campus is naturally being reflected in student newspapers, who are often seen guiding the conversation with their news coverage and editorial pages.
“What’s been interesting is the discussion we’ve seen in some student newspapers of the possibility of limiting First Amendment rights,” said Will Creeley, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s legal and public advocacy director.
Earlier this year, Virginia Tech’s student newspaper, The Collegiate Times, started their own discussion on the subject after an anti-Muslim ad sponsored by Facts and Logic About the Middle East organization ran in their newspaper.
The advertisement accused Middle Eastern communities of anti-Semitism.
Backlash against the advertisement prompted the paper’s editor-in-chief to respond to the criticism in a column
, saying the paper did not support the message, but defended its right to publish the ad and the value of the discussion it created.
“We fully understand the abusive nature of these ads,” Michelle Sutherland wrote in the July column
. “However, refusing to publish them does not solve the larger problem of cultural prejudices that exist in our country. Only bringing issues like this out in the open and starting a dialogue will settle it in the long run.”
Her explanation did little to allay many readers, who criticized the column with online comments like, “So you’re saying that you essentially whore out ad space to anyone who wants it? Glad to know you’re that desperate.”
“So you essentially admit to taking ANY advertising money that comes your way — regardless of what it says or implies?” asked another commenter. “That’s a good way to go about things for sure. Can we get a new school paper please?”
Following the incident, Sutherland said that the paper was working to redraft their advertising policy, though they did not know if they would be more or less lenient concerning religious ads.
Other papers, including The Diamondback at the University of Maryland and The Badger Herald at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also received heated comments from readers after they ran FLAME’s ad.
The Golden Gate Xpress at San Francisco State University has faced continuing issues from publishing advertisements from the David Horowitz Freedom Center that are extremely anti-Muslim, said Rachele Kanigel, the paper’s advsier.
In 2004, the paper’s advertising department decided to run one of Horowitz’s ads. It prompted a general outcry from the campus and community, and the word ‘racist” was graffitied across campus. The editor at the time ran an article apologizing for the ad and a letter from the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Kanigel said that after that, the paper set up a policy that allowed both the editorial board and the advertising department a say whether any ad that could be considered controversial would be run.
“I think the first thing is student editors need to think about these things and anticipate reactions,” Kanigel said. “What isn’t good is if the advertising department runs an ad and doesn’t tell the editorial board that an ad is running. You want to keep editors in the loop, and make sure they know about any kind of controversial advertising.”
When another ad from the Horowitz center came in a few months ago, Kanigel said that the paper’s editors used the system to decide whether they wanted to run the ad. In the end, she said, they decided it did not have a place in the paper.
Kanigel said that it’s still the college journalist’s duty as a gatekeeper to decide what’s proper to run..
“The First Amendment keeps the government from telling the editors what decisions to make, but I think there is some content that would be so offensive, that would be so troubling, that would be so injurious to readers that editors shouldn’t publish it.” Kanigel said. “It should be the editor’s decision, but free speech shouldn’t mean publishing everything.”
Creeley said the fact that these debates are occurring, instead of violence, is proof that the First Amendment works.
“What’s reassuring to me as a First Amendment advocate and attorney is that, just as I am always counseling students and administrators to answer ‘bad speech’ with ‘more speech,’ so too did the dialogue about the usefulness and continued vitality take the same turn,” Creeley said. “It’s been an interesting back and forth to see.”
By Jordan Bradley, SPLC staff writer.