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Kunal Patel: Upholding freedom of speech includes protecting unpopular ideas

(Devin Le/Daily Bruin)

By Kunal Patel

March 17, 2015 2:28 am

The recent controversy surrounding a racist bus chant perpetrated by University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members and subsequent expulsion of two chant-leading members has reignited the debate of free speech on college campuses.

Two days after the racist bus chant video was posted online, University of Oklahoma President David Boren expelled two SAE students leading the racist chant. Boren said that the two students “misused their freedom of speech” and therefore a punishment was levied for their “leadership role in leading a racist and exclusionary chant.” The students were expelled without the due process outlined in the school’s student rights and responsibilities code and procedures.

The expulsion is part of a troubling pattern of universities across the nation – including the University of California – imposing inappropriate restrictions on free speech.

While the University of Oklahoma’s condemnation of racist speech is commendable, Boren’s unilateral decision to expel those students without due process and for a “misuse” of free speech is not. Public college administrators are not Supreme Court justices – they should not act as moral arbitrators by levying punishment based on their interpretation of acceptable speech. To do so is to jeopardize the university’s commitment to freedom of speech.

Moreover, under current legal precedent established by R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, hate speech is only punishable if it leads to an imminent threat of violence. The bus chant was unquestionably racist, but it was not a direct and believable threat of violence against any person.

To be clear, these fraternity members’ actions were deplorable and unacceptable. But our disagreement with the fraternity members’ speech does not give us the right to forcibly silence it. Freedom of speech is a founding tenet of the American political landscape and has a long tradition in academia. Without freedom of speech, social activists and leaders who sought meaningful change such as Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, and 1960s and 1970s feminists – whose ideas were very unpopular – would have been silenced. The racist speech of the SAE fraternity brothers isn’t comparable to the speech of social justice activists, but it’s the price we pay as a society for an unconditional support of free speech.

Misuse of the free speech argument is not exclusive to the University of Oklahoma – colleges around the nation have seen numerous restrictions on free speech and academic freedom in the past year. Such actions lead colleges down a turbulent path, where innovative and controversial thoughts and ideas that promote productive dialogue may not be openly expressed. Since college is one of the first true opportunities for young people to encounter so many other unique individuals, the restriction of free speech is especially counterproductive for an open learning atmosphere.

Last summer during the 50th anniversary of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks asked students in an email to express “civility” in their free speech. While civility is important for everyday speech, Dirks imposing his definition of “civility” onto students is akin to requesting that students censor themselves when speaking under the protections of the First Amendment. This is all quite ironic since the purpose of the celebration of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement was to recognize former Berkeley students who protested against the UC administration’s ban of on-campus political discussions.

Earlier this month, UCLA settled a lawsuit awarding formerly dismissed researcher James Enstrom $140,000. Enstrom sued the university regarding allegations of wrongful termination due to his controversial research that challenged the validity of a California Air Resources Board report on air pollutants. While the university continues to deny that he was dismissed for his views, the terms of the settlement suggest that his claims may have merit.

Such restrictions on freedom of speech are truly a nationwide problem. One of the most the abusive infringements occurred at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in August, when the school rescinded its tenured employment offer to Professor Steven Salaita. The school rescinded his offer because his tone was not “civil” when he tweeted his criticisms toward Israel after a bombing on the Gaza Strip.

Infringements on free speech are especially dangerous because they bolster the perception that expression of controversial ideas may lead to lesser life opportunities, such as reduced employment opportunities. The perception encourages those who think differently to censor and frame their controversial thoughts in a socially acceptable manner. And as a result of such censorship, we may scare off our great thinkers and activists.

Racist speech like that of the SAE fraternity chapter at the University of Oklahoma can and should be widely and publicly condemned. But ultimately, we all have a responsibility to protect this fundamental right for all uses of free speech.

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