WASHINGTON (CN) – If universities truly want to be bastions of learning and thought, they must uphold the free speech rights of even the most offensive speakers, First Amendment advocates told a House panel on Wednesday.
Members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce heard testimony from “Uncensored” author Zachary Wood; Joseph Cohn, policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in Philadelphia; Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America in New York and Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center in Tennessee.
Protecting offensive language – a subject which often divides those who discuss it – is at the core of the First Amendment, Paulson told lawmakers.
“It’s important for universities to proactively generate [this understanding] and tell students, while on campus, you will hear things that deeply trouble you and if you do, you have an obligation to speak out against it,” he said. “The same tool every citizen can use to offend can also be used to defend.”
The hearing comes on the heels of a speech delivered last week by Attorney General Jeff Sessions who vowed to combat campus policies that limit free speech.
Using colorful language of his own, Sessions said it was “time to put a stake in the heart” of policies that cater to student sensitivity – like free speech zones which restrict protestors on campus to a single area, often out of sight – rather than upholding those students First Amendment right to freely protest and assemble.
Nossel said Wednesday she believes Sessions “rightly raised” concerns about overreach and administrative policing.
But the attorney general’s method of castigating students like he did in July when telling a conservative group that modern students are “a generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes” – does little more than harden the very minds he asks to remain open, she explained.
At a time where universities boast student bodies more diverse in gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and political belief, lawmakers asked the panel how they believed the federal government could properly support First Amendment rights on campus while guarding against bias and discrimination.
Paulson said he “respected the motives” of lawmakers but was quick to dismiss federal involvement.
“If you think there’s a role for you in this process, consider beginning that role [when students are at age 5],” he said, noting that early comprehension of free speech should be part of curriculum long before college.
Once a child turns 18, he said, it should be a “free-for-all for ideas and discussion.”
“By that time, the bubble is broken, and you better get used to new ideas,” Paulson said.
Hearing things that disturb is part of a student’s growth and education, he said but that doesn’t mean incitement to violence is ever condoned – or legal.
Author Zachary Wood told the committee it was up to educators to set the example for students and encourage debate and analysis of multiple perspectives.
Professors have a responsibility to explain at the start of every semester that ideas some may find offensive are merely that – ideas, he said.
“Some concepts shouldn’t be presented as facts, but rather, as opinions,” Wood added. “If you consider multiple view points on a single topic, that’s where the value in talking with those you disagree with comes in.”
Nossel said university leadership must ensure there are mechanisms to address controversial subjects or speakers instead of shying away from inviting those who might be met with protest or outrage.
“Many universities are caught flat-footed. That can fuel student anger and form calls to curtail speech but if the administrators are engaged, responsive and taking matters seriously while working to address and foster a more equal, inclusive climate, than I don’t think we see these kinds of flare ups erupt as often,” she said.
The panel unanimously agreed there is a fundamental misunderstanding by the average American, about what the First Amendment truly protects – or doesn’t.
Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., asked panelists if there was “any line” that could be drawn for expression on campus.
“One of the most misunderstood things about free speech is that somehow hate speech is different and treated as not having the same worthiness. It doesn’t have a lot of value but the truth is, when the United States adopted the First Amendment, there was a lot of hate speech around and you didn’t need it to protect popular or widely-agreed with speech,” Paulson said.
There was a commitment, he continued, that suggested you could say whatever you wanted, however unpalatable, so long as it did not expressly incite violence.
According to Joseph Cohn, “Censorship has rarely worked and doesn’t really work to eliminate hateful views.”
“Hate speech in public squares helps us diagnose the extent of the problem,” he said.
When controversial figures are invited to campus and the ire of students is raised, Nossel said this is precisely the time students should fight back with counter-speech and challenge ideas they may abhor.
This prompted Rep. Shea Porter to paraphrase a quote by the English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, a woman who in 1906 published under a male pen name so that her own speech could be expressed more freely.
“‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’,” Rep. Shea Porter said.