The UNI family of students was shocked this past week with the sharing of dozens of hateful and bigoted posts, or Yik Yaks, from the eponymous new media app. Individuals across the university community called for enforcement of the Student Code of Conduct. Acting President of the University, Michael Licari, wrote to remind us that threats to our fellow students are criminal offenses.
However, in the din of this controversy, some have called for the enforcement of the Student Conduct Code on anonymous posters who did not threaten their fellow students. This desire to use force to suppress non-threatening speech is very concerning. To understand why, we have to go back to the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the birth of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964. Pictured above, a student is forcibly removed from the UC Berkeley campus for expressing the radical and dangerous view that political speech other than supporting the Democrats or Republicans should be permitted on campus.
Then in 1964, a Berkeley student organization “SLATE” staged protests, distributed pamphlets and information about the Civil Rights Movement and the Freedom Riders, and engaged in other activism projects. They protested discriminatory practices performed by fraternity and sorority organizations, and they campaigned on campus on a variety of issues in violation of student speech codes. As a movement of the New Left during the height of McCarthyism, and perhaps from concern among administration and faculty of being seen as supportive of the Civil Rights Movement’s activism projects, the student organization was banned from UC Berkeley’s campus.
This was the start of the Free Speech Movement, which sought to ensure the right of free expression to all students at public schools and universities. Students staged sit-ins and protests, and eventually secured changes to policy that should have been protected by the 1st Amendment all along. This right is the most important right we have as students: it empowers us to criticize the administration with impunity, challenge the status quo, and demand change without fear of retribution. The right to do so anonymously, too, ought to be protected. Everyone ought to be able to make an argument in the marketplace of ideas and let it stand or fall on its own merit. The Protestant Reformation and the predominant religious doctrine of most Americans depended on the ability of Europeans to express their ideas anonymously, under fear of being condemned for heresy by the Catholic Church. Even today, students have faced abuse for far less than the hate crimes alleged here.
Free expression and anonymous speech are as important today as they were to the founding of our nation, to the dominant faith of our fellow citizens, and to social movements that have changed our world for the better. In every case, authorities sought to limit speech, and to silence criticism with force, often with the penalty of death. We saw this in Ferguson, and we see it in Syria. In every place on earth, the right to freely assemble and merely express one’s ideas is under constant threat. And in nearly every case, the silencing of free speech has had overwhelming support from the majority of the populace. What the founders learned from this was that no government should ever again have the right to punish ideas: it is too dangerous, the slope is too slippery. Nevertheless, today, the implementation of freedom of expression remains imperfect
That said, the comments made, and the remarks I have heard from my fellow students speaking out about the bigotry they face in person on campus upset me. I want to be clear to everyone hurt by these words: I would rather stand beside you and not my friends, were my friends to say such things. That is how change will come to UNI. We must be willing to call out hate, student to student, and use the power of social stigma to end the bigotry our peers face. Let us not call on authority to enforce our social norms. We must be willing to do so ourselves. Free expression ensures us the right to openly criticize racist and homophobic statements without fear of retribution. We should exercise that right and not seek to use force where words may prevail.
Every person at UNI has the power to do this. Remember that in many ways reason and compassion have already prevailed: the last resort of bigoted students to express themselves without fear of stigma are these anonymous posts. Let’s keep it that way, and ensure that no student faces open bigotry, that no bigot may utter such without facing criticism and shame from their classmates and friends. If you hear hate, call it what it is. Whether you are in your dorm, on the hill, or using social media, when you hear hate speech, call it out.