I’m writing in an attempt to clarify the current debate on free speech, specifically regarding “hate speech.” Although I’m not an expert on civil liberties and constitutional law, I felt the need to correct some misnomers circulating around campus and this newspaper.

From what I understand, “hate speech” can only be restricted or outlawed if it constitutes “fighting words” (see: Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire). Or, according to the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Chaplinsky, words are hateful when they “are not essential part of any exposition of ideas.”

If the creators of the posters decided not to quote the Quran and instead print words like “sand-monkey,” “towel-head” or something far more hideous, that would be classified as hate speech (because they offer no real value to any meaningful “exposition of ideas”).

This qualification of certain speech as “hateful” led to the creation of speech codes that aimed to restrict speech. However, subsequent federal court rulings struck down speech codes on the basis that they were vague and failed to specify what form of expressive conduct was and was not allowed.

Due to the subjectivity of judicial precedent on the matter (as well as volatility for the outcome of future cases), the issue remains obscured and the challenge is clear: strike the proper balance between protecting free speech and maintaining a fair and harmonious educational environment.

Now comes a bit of my own opinion on the matter. I think the signs are essential to allowing an “exposition of ideas.”

Although I’ve never seen the signs before, I’ve heard that they quote scripture from the Quran, out of context and use it to defame Islam.

I argue not only that the signs are, in fact, protected by the First Amendment, but that they are conducive to cultivating an environment of critical thinking and providing an “exposition of ideas” within the university.

Proponents of speech codes have argued that preserving the peace on campuses trumps free speech rights. The desire for this in the public domain is completely reasonable, but universities are different. They are supposed to be bastions of thought. That means that my beliefs and opinions will be under constant assault, thus motivating me to strengthen and defend them. Isn’t that what education is all about?

Where I draw the line on assaulting others’ beliefs is found in the above quote from Chaplinsky. The assault must be a substantive assault, not vain ad hominem. It must contribute to meaningful dialogue and appeal to the intellect, not the emotions. Emotions may be riled up in the process, but a true intellectual battle is raged with ideas, not with rocks, fists or Molotov cocktails.

My religion is consistently slandered. Scripture is taken out of context to vilify and falsely potray my religion. Does this mean I should advocate for this disagreeable language to be made illegal? Staunch criticism to my ideas is cowardly. Let me have it. I can adequately defend what I believe because my beliefs have undergone so much constructive assault.

Although I am not a Muslim myself, I readily admit that the signs are fallacious defamation. However, if they were directed at my religion, I would welcome it (albeit begrudgingly and dishearteningly).

The purpose for the existence of an academic institution is to inspire, cultivate and critically assess ideas. Of all places in society (business offices, public squares, etc.), universities should be last on the list for restricting First Amendment rights.

Audrey Crescenti
Political science and history

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