UVA students participate in the National Walkout Day to protest gun violence on March 14, 2018.

Is hate speech a fundamental right? Events in Charlottesville shape student’s view

Knight Foundation recently released a report on the state of free speech on college campuses, which found that students have strong support for the First Amendment, though some say diversity and inclusion are more important to a democracy than free speech. Knight commissioned three students to share their own opinions on their findings, including this piece.

Photo courtesy UVA Communications.

At the University of Virginia’s Student Council first general meeting last fall, the public comment section overflowed with testimonies for and against a list of student demands presented in the wake of the August white nationalist rally that left three people dead and a community in turmoil. Several of these, such as requests for increased recruiting resources to attract more black students and faculty members, mirrored a list of demands that the Student Council’s first African-American President, James Roebuck, presented to then university President Edgar Shannon in 1970. Some denunciations of the demands, which centered around the legacy of Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy specifically, were objectively offensive, garnering shouts and public protests from many of the 200 students who had gathered to watch the Student Council vote on these requests.

Since that deeply charged meeting, students with both conservative and liberal political beliefs have expressed that they no longer feel safe attending these weekly gatherings. By no means am I criticizing people for how they processed the deadly events of August 2017. However, I do worry about large groups of students opting out of this centralized town hall, a civil space for students to communicate ideological differences on the basis of mutual respect. It is also troubling that legitimate concerns about physical safety, concerns that have led to the creation of safe spaces for marginalized groups, are more frequently being labeled as “offensive.”

As University of Virginia’s Student Council president, the aftermath of the August rallies is just one of the many First Amendment debates that has shaped my tenure. I have served through polarizing disputes around Confederate memorials; a KKK rally; the death of University of Virgina student Otto Warmbier, and numerous incidents of hate speech.

This divisive and tragic series of events has informed my perspective that a select category of speech both impedes the truth-seeking charge of institutions of higher education and compromises the integrity of our democracy. Our laws maintain that hate speech is a guaranteed right, relegating it to a regrettable, yet unavoidable cost that we must pay for freedom. However, if our elected leadership aims to authentically tout the ideals of liberalism and egalitarianism, then I contend that they must take violations of civility, presented by hate speech, more seriously.

As students, we lack the tools to tighten the parameters that define protected political speech. However, the solution to concerns about speech versus equity may not lie with more regulations. The answer demands a deeper look at what dignified treatment of difference looks like in our pluralistic society. With partisan divide on political issues at its highest in recent history, we are quick to mark those with different opinions as morally flawed, casting them out of our social circles. Social media platforms and like-minded student organizations reinforce our own perspectives about the world; we have lost trust and respect for the “other,” whoever that “other” may be. I have witnessed the extent to which fliers, graffiti and slurs have shaken student trust in the principles and culture of the university. I have also witnessed how quick assumptions of intolerance have contributed to a dangerous environment of fear and isolation.

Thereby, our challenge as college and university students looms large. How do we create a culture in which hate speech is treated like the serious assault to dignity that it presents, while not depressing opportunities for the messy, robust debate that drives our democratic institutions? I don’t have a silver-bullet solution to this complex question of values and culture. Nevertheless, my hope is that college and university communities, united by a common pursuit of truth, can move towards more equitable, civil norms of free speech that our country is desperately yearning for.

Sarah Kenny is the University of Virginia’s Student Council president, and a member of the class of 2018.

Read the perspectives of other students on the state of free expression on college campuses in our series:

Salma Abdelrahman, Harvard College: “We can both oppose controversial speakers and champion free speech: A student’s view

Lianna Farnesi, Florida International University: “Politically Conservative, Socially Silent: A student’s view