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To speak freely: the college campus debate

Amid the free speech crisis erupting on college campuses, North Carolina has passed a law to ban “free speech zones” in an effort to promote diversity of thought in its public universities.

Photo: Students and parents attend a tour at NC State University amidst anti-abortion protests. Fletcher Armstrong Blog, (Courtesy of Google Images)

The right to freely express one’s opinion without interference is increasingly being disrupted on college campuses across the nation. Despite the fact that these institutions of higher learning are supposed to stimulate new thoughts and ideas, it is becoming more difficult for people with certain viewpoints to engage in intellectual discussion. The trend appears to show that many students equate conservative ideologies with hate speech, which has resulted in violent protests largely against conservative speakers and the overall weakening of the First Amendment in our nation’s universities.

In response to the turmoil spreading across college campuses, North Carolina Republicans, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, introduced House Bill 527 to promote greater viewpoint diversity. Both Congressional chambers passed the bill with veto-proof majorities. However, Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision not to ratify the bill himself—instead allowing the July 30 deadline for his signature to lapse—underscores the nationwide debate concerning campus free speech laws.

The new legislation bans the implementation of “free speech zones,” which originated during the Vietnam War as a designated space for protestors on college and university campuses. In addition to reinforcing the protections already afforded to individuals by the First Amendment, the law pushes schools to more aggressively police those who disrupt campus events. To be exact, there are concerns for the enactment of such laws, particularly that First Amendment violations on college campuses should be resolved in courts and not by laws, which are largely introduced by the political right.

For proponents of the legislation, it is a much–needed step in the right direction in regards to First Amendment preservation. “We’re really proud that bills to end free speech zones have been passed in a number of states and almost all with broad bipartisan support,” says Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that defends individual rights on college and university campuses.

[S]cenarios of violence and suppressing speech continue to proliferate across America’s college campuses.

The controversy surrounding free speech on college campuses seems to have its recent genesis at the University of California Berkeley when a riot broke out in February of this year in anticipation of conservative writer and former Breitbart reporter Milo Yiannopoulos’ scheduled on–campus speech. What started out as a peaceful protest to Yiannopoulos’ controversial political views ended in pure mayhem, causing $100,000 in damages. According to a CNN report on the incident, attackers threw commercial–grade fireworks, rocks, and even Molotov cocktails at police, smashed the windows out of university buildings, set fires near the campus bookstore, and destroyed the construction site of a new dorm. Among those injured were two Berkley College Republicans who were attacked while conducting an interview and a woman wearing a red Trump hat who was sprayed with pepper spray in the face. The riot was eventually dispersed from Berkley’s campus and Yiannopoulos’ speech was cancelled two hours before its scheduled start time.

The university made a statement about the events soon thereafter: “While Yiannopoulos’ views, tactics and rhetoric are profoundly contrary to our own, we are bound by the Constitution, the law, our values and the campus’s Principles of Community to enable free expression across the full spectrum of opinion and perspective.” Despite these remarks, a speech by a second controversial, conservative speaker, Ann Coulter, was cancelled a couple months later after protestors threatened to riot if she were permitted to speak.

Even though the events occurring at Berkley have been widely condemned across the political spectrum, similar scenarios of violence and suppressing speech continue to proliferate across America’s college campuses. Many point the blame at the nation’s hostile political climate. According to Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the tensions on college campuses reflect the growing political polarization in society, which has been exacerbated by the presidential campaign and growing white nationalist activity, and is likely to cause an increase in violent confrontations in the fall.

[E]ven conservative ‘red’ states, and not just liberal colleges and universities, are enforcing policies that restrict free speech.

Recent events occurring at the University of South Carolina (USC) prove that even conservative “red” states, and not just liberal colleges and universities, are enforcing policies that restrict free speech. In November of 2015, USC student–members of the school’s Young Americans for Liberty and College Libertarians chapters hosted an event whose theme, ironically, was the threats to free speech on American college campuses. During the event, posters illustrating incidents of censorship were displayed. Despite having gone through all the requisite hoops, and obtaining prior approval from the director of campus life, the event still managed to cause the filing of three different Formal Complaints of Discrimination.

In one complaint, a student alleged the students running the event made rude and racist comments and only “wanted to use university resources and space to post offensive symbols and racial slurs.” Another complaint objected to the use of a derogatory term even though it was quoted in the context of a case. The third complaint concerned a poster displaying a swastika and how it “violently triggered” a friend who now “feels unsafe” on campus. The backlash from students who felt offended by the event certainly attested to the event’s overall message of how the First Amendment is being restricted on college campuses.

In response to the discrimination complaints, the president of USC’s College Libertarians, Ross Abbott, received an official Notice of Charge from the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs. In his meeting with the assistant director, Abbott again had to defend the complaints about the posters, which had already been approved by another school official as non-discriminatory and having an educational purpose. Eventually, USC notified Abbott that it would not be pursuing him any longer in regard to the complaints; however, this was not the end of the matter, as Abbott decided to file suit against his school in February 2016.

In the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Abbott challenged a number of USC’s policies, including its implementation of free speech zones and its “vague, overly broad” harassment policy. In spite of his fervent efforts, the case did not survive summary judgment. The federal district judge presiding, the Honorable Margaret B. Seymour, held in her July 7 decision that USC’s policies were constitutionally acceptable as “a narrow approach to addressing the rights of students on campus: those who participated in the event and those who felt discriminated by it.” Abbott is set to appeal the ruling in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Substituting violence for speech is the regressive method of handling disparities and ultimately leads to tragedies like that which recently occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia…

The incidents occurring on our nation’s college campuses have prompted members of Congress to hold hearings on the topic of campus free speech this summer, where they largely came to a bipartisan consensus that college presidents, faculty and students should not attempt to block controversial personalities from speaking on campus, and instead should reject hateful and bigoted speech by offering their own intellectual rebuttals. Substituting violence for speech is the regressive method of handling disparities and ultimately leads to tragedies like that which recently occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, thereby marring our country’s guarantee of certain individual rights.

Throughout our nation’s history, the First Amendment’s right to free speech has always generated heated debate and thought–provoking discussion–and rightfully so. The ability to freely express one’s opinion without interference is a mainstay of the foundation on which our country was founded. While speech in general is a liberty protected by the Constitution, we as a people have also recognized certain facets of speech that fall outside the protected area. For example, true threats, fighting words, and words likely to incite imminent lawless action are all types of speech considered dangerous and subversive, and therefore not the type intended to be protected.

Yet, anyone with an understanding of the First Amendment, and certainly any law student that has taken a constitutional law course, knows that hate speech is a form of expression that is protected by the Constitution. Hate speech, although disparaging and inconsiderate, nonetheless can provoke listeners to form opinions of their own whether or not they agree with the message being disseminated. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and suppressing those that do not conform or that offend others is antithetical to true societal progression. By silencing those we do not agree with, we are left with a singular and unrefined way of thinking. By engaging in a dialectical process and challenging our contradictions, we can at least evolve our opinions into more sophisticated ones in the future.

Katie King
About Katie King (12 Articles)
Katie King is a third year law student and serves as Managing Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Calabash, NC, Katie went to NC State University where she received a Bachelor of Arts in History. During her second year, Katie worked in real estate at Brady Law Firm located in Raleigh, as well as in the Chambers of The Honorable Judge John M. Tyson at the NC Court of Appeals. Her legal interests include corporate law, real property, and estate planning.