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Speech that silences
By Rae Hodge–
FACT: If I catch you on my campus using a roped-off “Free Speech Zone” to yell pro-slavery and anti-gay sentiments to a group of black students within earshot of the Office for LGBT Services, I will – repeat WILL – publicly humiliate you in front of your intended audience by demolishing your arguments until you are speechless, befuddled and blushing deeply. My rhetoric will be swift, uncompromising and executed with extreme prejudice.
And, yes, that’s exactly what happened Tuesday when Drake Shelton, the white supremacist would-be leader of the as yet unformed Protestant Christian Church of Louisville, jumped on his racist soapbox at U of L to beat his separatist drum to the tune of Leviticus 25:44, with a sign propped at his feet reading: “This colony never kidnapped slaves from Africa.”
While I would love to detail how this interaction unfolded, what’s more important here is recognizing how this incident reflects two major problems with the debate regarding hate speech on public college campuses. The first problem is that debate has so far been framed as one where First Amendment rights are at odds with eliminating racism. The second is that the proponents for the protection of hate speech rarely, if ever, think to build an argument that can withstand the christening edge of my bloody axe. U of L’s patron is Minerva, goddess of both logic and war; bigots should therefore be prepared for both from this campus.
Charles R. Lawrence III, a remarkable author and law professor at Georgetown, published an article back in 1990 in the Duke Law Journal called “On Racist Speech.” In it, he forms a profound interpretation of Brown v. Board as a free speech case when he argues that segregation’s inherit problems include the message of inferiority to black students. The case’s success, then, is in part its elimination of that system of messages in schools.
Lawrence makes a crucial distinction in the essay: that hate speech in public is not regulated because it is assumed that the listener can escape without being stripped of rights; a black student on a campus is an unwilling listener who cannot escape hate speech without de facto segregation. Safe passage in common areas, then, is part of a university’s obligation to provide equal educational opportunities.
Lawrence also speaks to the silencing nature of hate speech, which is counter to the aims of free speech and seeks to exclude and minimize the voices of its victims. He posits that “If the purpose of the First Amendment is to foster the greatest amount of speech, racial insults disserve that purpose.”
In a climate of racial harassment, the speech and political participation of students within a racial minority becomes subdued. If a university is asking black students to bear the burden of insult in the name of free speech and for the greater good, then those students must be fairly represented in the university’s deliberations on the matter.
I encourage you here, reader, to examine the racial composition of the decision-making body responsible for allowing groups like the KKK – which was allowed to gather on campus in 2004 – and individuals like Drake Shelton access to this campus’ unwilling listeners. Decide for yourself if those students who bore the burden were fairly represented.
For those who claim to be free speech purists, I would refer you to the “fighting words” exception in First Amendment protections, as well as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Whenever you knock a bigot’s teeth down his throat for hurling personally abusive epithets at you or file suit because your boss harassed you at work by making sexual comments, you’re citing a precedent that compromises a person’s right to absolute freedom of speech. Side note: welcome to intersectionality, white feminists.
It is an undeniable exercise of privilege on the part of this author to take a publicly uncompromising stance against the rights of racists on campus. I do not share the same risks as students of color who voice the same arguments, and I am far more likely to have my voice represented in this matter. For this, and for my proclivity toward performing variations of White Knight Syndrome on the behalf of marginalized peers, I have to beg pardon. I’m seeking not to supersede the voices of those most affected by these racists, but to speak in harmonious alliance with that choir when forces seek to silence them.
FACT: As a writer and editor of an independent publication, few causes are dearer to me than the maintenance of this nation’s free press and speech. There is no end to my arguments in defense of our citizens’ exercise of those rights. This article is part of that defense. If your words, flowing from the fountain of purpose to injure, find purchase in the voices and rights of my peers, you will – repeat WILL – find me waiting behind those peers, my red pen raised in solidarity.