On Nov. 30, The Review published a letter from “faculty, graduate students and staff to the UD community.” I myself did not sign the letter, even though I heartily agreed with almost all of its content. Almost all. There is one sentence that concerns me, and here I take the opportunity to explain myself. The letter reads in part:
“We unambiguously condemn any hateful or violent acts that people commit against members of under-represented groups on this campus and in our community, including the recent hate speech in the dorms.”
I, too, unambiguously condemn such acts. But how should we respond to them, in the particular case of hate speech acts? The next sentence is not encouraging to me:
“These behaviors will not be tolerated; we will do everything possible to prevent these acts from happening, prosecute those who engage in such behavior and promote safe spaces for people affected by such acts.”
I could have read this sentence charitably, held my nose, and signed on. But it can also be read as endorsing exactly the same sorts of responses that the President-elect wishes to make to speech he finds beyond the pale. Consider Mr Trump’s tweet from just the day before, November 29:
“Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”
What Mr. Trump apparently fails to understand is that the point of the freedom of speech enshrined in the First Amendment is to protect unpopular, even offensive expression of ideas. We do not allow the tyranny of the majority to censor or punish speech on the basis of its content. We can only impose restrictions such as time, place and manner (where appropriate, to safeguard our other freedoms).
Instead (subject to time, place, and manner restrictions), we must tolerate such speech, we must do everything to ensure the possibility of such speech, and we must not prosecute or otherwise punish it. As to “safe spaces,” it is perhaps ironic that Mr Trump on November 19 tweeted:
“The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”
In one sense, of course the theater should be a safe space; Presidents should not be shot while attending a performance. But arguably the theater is just the sort of space where one ought not to be surprised by speech that is uncomfortable. (Of course, one might expect not to be singled out for such speech, but it’s difficult for a public figure to make this complaint.) For the theater is often enough a place where ideas are tested and challenged, even and especially ideas that we cherish.
This is even more obvious in the case of college campuses. (Do I need to say more?) By all means let us have safe spaces, but by no means let us use safety as the excuse for banishing altogether content we disapprove of. We can reasonably restrict the time, place and manner of its expression, but on a college campus there are also spaces that should not be “safe.” The antidote to ignorant, hateful speech is more and better speech, not censorship or punishment. And the law agrees. When tested in court, no campus hate speech code has ever passed Constitutional muster.
Let us not emulate Donald Trump in this.