Racists have free speech rights too

Some University of Oklahoma students in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity were videotaped singing a racist chant that included a reference to lynching. 

University president David Boren expelled two students for “leading a racist and exclusionary chant which has created a hostile educational environment for others.”

Racist speech is protected by the First Amendment, responds Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor, in the Washington Post. “Universities may not discipline students based on their speech.” There is no “hostile environment” exception.

Likewise, speech doesn’t lose its constitutional protection just because it refers to violence — “You can hang him from a tree,” “the capitalists will be the first ones up against the wall when the revolution comes,” “by any means necessary” with pictures of guns, “apostates from Islam should be killed.”

Speech would have to be a “true threat” of violence to lose that protection, writes Volokh. Examples would be saying “we’ll hang you from a tree” or “we will shoot you against a wall” to a particular person likely to see it as a death threat.

The university must “respect First Amendment principles” even in the face of “vile and reprehensible speech,” said the ACLU of Oklahoma. “It is difficult to imagine a situation in which a court would side with the university on this matter.”

At the University of Oregon, students argued free speech doesn’t apply to an anti-abortion preacher, writes Robby Soave on Reason‘s Hit & Run.

Allison Rutledge, a history major, told the Daily Emerald she felt emotionally threatened by the anti-abortion activist’s “obscene” sign. She grabbed it and stood on it. “You can’t just show whatever you want,” she said.

Warning: College can be upsetting

Trigger warning

Professors should warn their students about potentially traumatic material, writes Philip Wythe, a Rutgers student, in the Daily Targum.

For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s critically acclaimed novel, “The Great Gatsby,” possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence. Virginia Woolf’s famous cerebral narrative, “Mrs. Dalloway,” paints a disturbing narrative that examines the suicidal inclinations and post-traumatic experiences of an English war veteran.

“Trigger warnings” about potentially upsetting material are the latest campus fad, reports the New York Times. Advocates believe many students suffer from post-traumatic stress due to rape, domestic violence, racism, sexism, classism, ableism, military service or other things.

Professors aren’t happy about it, reports the Times. “Trigger warnings, they say, suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.”

“Any kind of blanket trigger policy is inimical to academic freedom,” said Lisa Hajjar, a sociology professor at (University of California at Santa Barbara), who often uses graphic depictions of torture in her courses about war. “Any student can request some sort of individual accommodation, but to say we need some kind of one-size-fits-all approach is totally wrong. The presumption there is that students should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable is absurd or even dangerous.”

Trigger proponents believe the classroom is supposed to be a “safe space” in which “no one should feel upset, anxious or uncomfortable,” writes Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic. He proposes a warning during registration:

“The world is rife with racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” the Oberlin course catalog might say. “Students taking courses in the humanities and social sciences should expect to grapple regularly with those phenomena and other fraught, uncomfortable subjects besides, in both course materials and classroom discussions with people who don’t share their values, judgments, or assumptions.”

That this doesn’t go without saying is an indictment of leading universities.

Yes, life can be a “hostile environment.”

America’s college kids are mollycoddled babies, writes Checker Finn. “These are the same kids who would riot in the streets if their colleges asserted any form of in loco parentis when it comes to such old-fashioned concerns as inebriation and fornication. God forbid they should be treated as responsible, independent adults!”

Jonathan Zimmerman offers a sample syllabus for a U.S. history course with warnings.

Friends’ jokes deemed ‘harassment’

A black guy and a white guy are joking around while playing beer pong in a college dorm room. The black student shouts “Team Nigga” when his team scores a point. The white student, a football team mate, says, “How about a white power?,” an inside joke. The black student replies, “White power!” Someone down the hall hears the jokes. Both students were found guilty of creating a “hostile and discriminatory environment” at Lewis & Clark College.

“If it really wants to fight racism on campus, Lewis & Clark should stop wasting its time on jokes among friends who happen to have different skin colors,” said Robert Shibley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).