2017 was a big year – and important test — for free speech in the United States.

From white nationalist rallies to black NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem, high profile examples of political expression were on full display, attracting tons of media attention and provoking heated debates about that most fundamental of American rights.

As our latest Above the Noise video explains, public university campuses, in particular, have been reluctant hosts to some of the most explosive clashes over free speech, especially hate speech against specific disenfranchised groups of people. And figuring out what illegal vs. what’s just really nasty and not cool can get really confusing fast.

To make some sense of it all, comic journalist Andy Warner breaks down the definitions and legalities. (The article continues below the comic.)

Berkeley’s administration has been unequivocal in its support of free speech, refusing to discriminate, even the ugliest forms of speech. Last year the school consistently allowed controversial speakers on campus. In some cases, it even spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on security to maintain safety at the events.

Some of these speakers have drawn thousands of protesters determined to shut them down. They say it’s one thing to encourage free speech that fosters debate, but hateful speech that specifically targets disenfranchised communities can cause serious harm and has no place on a public campus that’s supposed to be a safe and inclusive environment.

“When speech is grounded in hate for another person,” she said, “it’s not free speech any more,” said Zaynab Abdulqadir-Morris, Cal senior and president of the Associated Students of the University of California told the Mercury News last year.

But campus officials argue that a publicly-funded university like UC Berkeley has a legal obligation to allow everyone to speak on campus, no matter how extreme or offensive their views (unlike a private institution that has more leeway to limit speech).

Despite rejecting what these speakers stand for, the administration says it would nevertheless be setting a dangerous precedent if a public university (or the government, for that matter) was allowed to decide what forms of speech are acceptable or not.

In a letter written last August to UC Berkeley students and faculty, Chancellor Carol Christ explained this rationale:

“Some constitutionally protected speech attacks the very identity of particular groups of individuals in ways that are deeply hurtful. However, the right response is not the heckler’s veto, or what some call platform denial. Call toxic speech out for what it is, don’t shout it down, for in shouting it down, you collude in the narrative that universities are not open to all speech.”

Here’s the Deal with Free Speech and Hate Speech on Campus 23 April,2018Matthew Green

Author

Matthew Green

Matthew Green is a digital media producer for KQED News. He previously produced The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog. Matthew's written for numerous Bay Area publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. He also taught journalism classes at Fremont High School in East Oakland.

Email: mgreen@kqed.org; Twitter: @MGreenKQED

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor