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Submission: Free speech should not give hateful dialogue on campus a pass

By Robert Watson

Nov. 13, 2018 10:44 p.m.

“Hate speech is free speech.”

As a sophomore who was just getting acquainted with systems of authority at UCLA, this sobering truth sounded like an admission that we can’t do anything about hate speech on campus. Often, this platitude seems to be a flimsy excuse to justify staying out of the fray – that we should just ignore hate speech when it happens.

But there are still ways to confront hateful individuals whose beliefs contradict UCLA’s core values.

UCLA, after all, is no stranger to controversial speakers. I’m not referring to events meant to elicit worthwhile debate, such as the upcoming Students for Justice in Palestine conference or the invitation of well-meaning political thinkers, but lectures that offer little debate and are meant to needlessly incite students. For example, last year, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro of the Daily Wire was welcomed to campus with large protests outside of Ackerman Grand Ballroom. Additionally, Bruin Republicans planned and, because of internal disagreements, canceled a speech by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos titled “10 Things I Hate About Mexico.”

In response to the cancellation of Yiannopoulos’s visit, Chancellor Gene Block wrote a rare email to all students in which he agreed with the cancellation and called upon students “to resist such provocations and further nurture our campus culture, which values ideas over hatred.” Block’s statement on the Yiannopoulos cancellation was welcome, but there have been many incidents of provocation or hatred that he and the university have been silent about.

Hate speech on campus often does not come in the form of a scheduled public event. Street preachers, notoriety-seekers and instigatory members of the public have been known to preach hate along Bruin Walk, usually on the lawn in front of Kerckhoff Hall, the seat of student government. Students often react to this intentional provocation, sparking arguments and shouting matches while inevitably giving the speakers the attention they desire. These frequent occurrences never merit a response from the administration, even when their content and delivery is more venomous than that of the “professional” hate speakers who are invited to campus.

Just this past week, a shirtless street preacher troubled students walking through Bruin Plaza, shouting that “Homosexuality is an abomination” and “Sluts won’t get into heaven.”

This status quo of silence is not a solution.

Of course, because UCLA is a public space, all objectionable speech that does not present a clear and present danger is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be suppressed by the government – and thus university administrators.

However, students, professors and administrators are themselves free to engage in counterspeech and reassert the values that hate speakers challenge. Administrators and student leaders both share the privilege of being able to speak their minds in a variety of high-profile forums; they should use this privilege to call out hate speech, in any context, and condemn it when it runs counter to UCLA’s values. Ignoring smaller and more individualized forms of hate speech on campus, while only speaking out against high-profile scheduled speakers, is not a viable solution to addressing the toxicity that can threaten students’ existence on this campus.

I am left to question how UCLA willingly punishes students whose actions violate the university’s code of conduct, but refuses to rebuke off-campus speakers whose rhetoric directly contradicts this campus’ core values.

Our privilege to speak out is a tool that needs to be utilized as consistently as possible – even when hate speech isn’t scheduled.

Watson is the internal vice president of the Undergraduate Students Association Council.

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