Tuesday, August 14, 2018
After giving testimony in the House of Representatives on the state of freedom of speech on American campuses, I received a formal request from the committee for a written response to an additional question submitted to me by Representative Mark Meadows. His question was:
“At what point does speech become hate speech and should be limited?"
Here is the text of my reply, which has now been filed:
“Hate speech” is a phrase with no settled or determinate meaning. Although certain forms of expression (defamation, obscenity, threats, false advertising, etc.) are unprotected under the First Amendment, there is no “hate speech” exception to the Amendment. I regret to say that this is a matter on which even many of our most talented and best educated young people are in error. Many of my own students at Princeton enter my Constitutional Interpretation course erroneously believing that “hate speech” is outside the scope of constitutional protection. One of my first tasks is to disabuse them.
My classrooms are always “free speech zones.” In fact, in my view, every public space on a college or university campus should be a “free speech zone” (which is to say that there should be no need for special “free speech zones” on a campus). Students are free to advocate any view, and, indeed, I encourage students to defend any view they hold, so long as they are prepared to do business in the proper currency of intellectual discourse—a currency consisting of evidence, reasons, and arguments. My Princeton colleague Peter Singer defends the morality not only of abortion but even of infanticide—the deliberate killing of newborn babies. I find his position appalling and even scandalous. But because he is ready, willing, and able to make his case by adducing evidence, providing reasons, and making arguments, I believe he has a right to make it and, indeed, should be encouraged to do so. That I am unpersuaded (and appalled and even scandalized) by such advocacy is neither here nor there; nor does it diminish his right. In fact, I encourage my own students to take Professor Singer’s classes and to consider his arguments in a thoughtful and open-minded manner. Their education is enhanced by considering not only the views and arguments about abortion and infanticide they hear from me, but also the ones they hear from him. I have no desire (and no right) to indoctrinate my students. And if they are to learn to think for themselves and be genuine truth-seekers, it is important for them to be exposed to challenges from the broadest possible range of perspectives. I want them to hear and consider my perspective. But I want them to hear and consider Professor Singer’s too. And I want them to hear and consider the perspectives of others as well.
Of course, someone could say: “Professor Singer is advocating the license to kill an entire class of human beings. That is hate speech. It should not be allowed. His tenure at Princeton should be revoked. He should be fired.” But such a person would receive no support from me. On the contrary, I would insist that Professor Singer’s right to state and defend his views—with evidence, reasons, and arguments—must be strictly respected and protected.
Now, a legitimate question arises about how we distinguish mere demagoguery from genuine intellectual arguments. As a practical matter, however, this is not an issue that has to be resolved to settle campus free speech policy. We must err on the side of free speech. We should fight demagoguery not by prohibiting speech, but by exposing the demagogue. The demagogue appeals to emotion (prejudice, animus, etc.) not reason. His “reasoning” is a counterfeit—indeed a burlesque—of the real thing. So let him speak, but call him out. The danger of restricting demagogic speech—the danger of censorship—is that the authority to restrict demagogic speech can, and quickly will, be used as a pretext for censoring speech that powerful persons or interests on campus abominate.
What I do not permit in my classroom, and what universities may legitimately prohibit (and should prohibit), are such things as assaults (much less actual batteries), intimidation, threats, and raw abuse. These kinds of activities are not even fake reasoning. They are the opposite of reasoning. Calling a person a vile or vulgar name is not stating a reason or making an argument. Threatening or intimidating someone is not giving him a reason to change his mind about something. If that is what someone means by “hate speech,” then, yes, that should be forbidden on campus. It does not advance the intellectual mission of the university, viz. the cause of truth-seeking. On the contrary, it poisons the environment and makes genuine discussion and debate impossible.
But that, of course, is not ordinarily what people mean when they use the phrase “hate speech” and propose to prohibit it on campus. What they ordinarily mean by “hate speech” are positions and views that they detest and want to make it an offense to advocate or defend. They want, in effect, to immunize their own positions and views from critical challenge. This, to me, is simply unacceptable. My admirable friend Professor Allison Stanger was attacked by a mob on her own campus at Middlebury College not because she called someone a disgusting name or threatened or intimidated someone—she has never done and would never do anything of the kind—but because she was willing to engage in reasoned debate and discussion with Charles Murray, some of whose opinions were (to the limited extent that the people who constituted the mob understood them) anathema to them. These misguided souls justified their illiberal and violent actions by claiming to be fighting against “hate speech.”
I hope that these reflections are responsive to Chairman Meadows’ question. If more detail or additional thoughts would be helpful, please let me know. I will be happy to supply them.