What if a college sponsors an activity, such as an “ugliest woman contest” where boys dress up as girls, and someone in the contest were to dress up as Aunt Jemima? At most public colleges and universities, such a display would be protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to worry about people doing such things? Wouldn’t the world be better if people had some common sense and displayed some respect for others by not doing or saying things that would alienate or offend other cultures, races, lifestyles, or sexes? Unfortunately, this is not the case and many public colleges and universities are caught in a balancing act between preserving their students’ First Amendment rights, while also trying to preserve the rights of their students to live and learn in an environment that is free from offensive language or actions.
So, what is college hate speech? According to Griffin, Sullivan, and Robertson (2010), hate speech is
speech intended to degrade, intimidate, or incite violence or prejudicial action against a person or group of people based on their race, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual affiliation, gender identity, disability, language ability, ideology, social class, occupation, physical appearance, mental capacity, and any other distinction that might be considered by some as a liability. (p.225)
And even though the First Amendment grants us the freedom of speech, including such hate speech, there are limits. The federal and all state governments, including public colleges and universities and private schools that accept federal financial aid, cannot unnecessarily regulate speech, with the following exceptions: “obscenity, fighting words, defamation (libel, slander), child pornography, perjury, blackmail, incitement to imminent lawless action, true threats,
solicitations to commit crimes, and plagiarism of copyrighted material” (First Amendment Center, n.d., para 2). The center also adds that “some experts also would add treason, if committed verbally” (para. 2).
These exceptions have granted universities a bit of leverage over the speech they attempt to regulate, by the creation of campus speech codes. Sometimes, these codes are at direct odds with the First Amendment. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education organization (FIRE), a speech code is
…any university regulation or policy that prohibits expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large. Any policy—such as a harassment policy, a student conduct code, or a posting policy—can be a speech code if it prohibits protected speech or expression. (FIRE, What Are Speech Codes?, para. 1).
While everyone can essentially agree on the definition of a speech code, the problem arises when people are asked what the speech code is attempting to regulate. Some are of the mindset that hate speech is just that – speech, and nothing...