Lecture, panel clarify legal definition of free speech

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Senior Research Scholar in Law at Yale Law School Frederick Lawrence spoke on Monday March 28 about the differences between protected free speech and punishable hate crimes. Photo courtesy of Yale Law School

Vassar has recently been a center of verbal attacks by students and non-students. Cam­pus events–including discussions about the BDS Resolution–have stressed the importance to dis­tinguish between free though offensive and pun­ishable and hateful expression.

Senior Research Scholar in Law at Yale Law School and former President of Brandeis Uni­versity Frederick Lawrence presented on “Free Speech vs. Hate Speech: The Changing Contours of Free Expression” at New York’s Jewish Theo­logical Seminary annual Bernard G. Segal Me­morial Lecture on March 28. The live-streamed lecture was sponsored by the Dialogue and En­gagement Across Differences Fund. A panel dis­cussion facilitated by Professors of Psychology Abigail Baird and Dara Greenwood and Director of Equal Opportunity and Title IX Officer Rachel Pereira followed the lecture.

The lecture sought to answer the question, “Can we protect publicly-addressed free speech while guarding and speaking out against hateful expression?” Lawrence’s speech was grounded in the idea that the U.S. protects hate speech. Using legal definitions Lawrence suggested that the di­vision between free speech and hate crimes is of­ten determined as the difference between speech and conduct. Yet, he suggested that there is a better way of distinguishing them. He asserted, “The division between that which we should pro­tect and that which we may prohibit, in my view should be drawn based on the intent of the actor, much as we generally do in criminal law.”

Upon understanding the distinctions between free speech and hate speech, students may feel better equipped to discuss these issues when they arise. Greenwood said, “Understanding how to think about and constructively counteract po­tentially polarizing, bigoted or uninformed com­mentary thus seems particularly critical at this point in time. I think many Vassar students and faculty want to be able to engage in respectful and nuanced dialogue around certain emotionally charged issues (e.g. the BDS movement).”

Pereira facilitated a discussion afterwards. She remarked on Lawrence’s speech briefly and then fielded questions from the audience. The resounding opinion stood in agreement with Lawrence’s suggestion that the proper way to combat hateful speech is to have more speech. Pereira explained, “We are a place that is ripe to have more speech. Where else can you have dis­cussions about things like this, [other] than on a college campus? I think universities and college campuses are places where we can model that, combatting offensive speech with more speech.”

She went on to reiterate the crux of Lawrence’s argument, that the line between hateful and crim­inal speech, and between talk and action, is some­times difficult to distinguish, and when offensive incidents go unpunished it can feel unjust. While hateful words cannot always be prohibited by law, they should not be tolerated in personal experi­ences. Baird advised, “Words can hurt you. A lot. But they might be scaring you more than they ac­tually hurt you. And if you’re scared you need to talk. And if you’re scared, you need to learn.”

While Lawrence took a legal approach to ad­dressing the concept of protecting free speech, some audience members wanted to discuss those ideas in terms of their practical application at Vassar. Several students took issue with the idea of speaking out more to end hateful speech. They said that they are often not given the opportunity to speak at all and are institutionally oppressed in the very spaces where they are supposedly en­couraged to make themselves heard. In response, the panel asked for specifics about how Vassar as an individual institution can lessen the discrimi­nation that students feel from society at large.

The panelists and administrators demonstrat­ed a desire to hear from students about these issues, and encouraged intersectional discussion on all sides. President Catharine Bond Hill wrote in an emailed statement, “Listening to others is important if we are to benefit from the free ex­change of ideas. The benefits of freedom of ex­pression might be lost if separate parties with conflicting points of view do not feel comfortable sharing those viewpoints with each other. One re­sponse to difficult discussions is choosing not to participate. This is truly a lost educational oppor­tunity because sometimes uncomfortable conver­sations can be important.”

Vassar College Libertarian Union President Pietro Garaci ’18 agreed, “It’s important to recog­nize the importance of free speech, especially at a small liberal arts campus…We don’t want to be divided, we want to grow as a community. And part of that is respecting what somebody has to say, whether you agree with it or not.”

The discussion then turned to the concept of safety versus comfort, and how best to make stu­dents feel safe on campus. Dean of the College Christopher Roellke speculated, “The notion of ‘safe space’ is an interesting notion in and of it­self. I think education inherently is probably un­safe, because we’re going to have controversial discussions, we’re going to have difficult topics, trying to tackle world problems—these require difficult conversations which can be discomfort­ing.” However, he encouraged students to openly converse about these spaces and feelings. Pereira agreed, “I think we need to start asking ourselves as a campus, are we saying that safe equals com­fortable?”

The objective of these events is not to reach any conclusion, but to have earnest, meaningful discussion. “Each of us has an obligation to speak in response to hate speech,” Lawrence concluded. “The only chill that this creates…is one that brings us closer to a society in which the dignity of all is not only protected by the state, but is cherished by each other.”

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