This “Higher Education Council” Has Much to Learn

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Recently, the Higher Education Council of San Antonio released a letter that forthrightly declares, “Hate Speech Is Not Free Speech.”

The signatories, among them the presidents of UT-San Antonio, TAMU-San Antonio, and Trinity University, the chancellor of the Alamo College District, and the mayor of the city, make the obligatory bow toward free speech and inquiry: “Higher education is a phenomenal place for minds to be challenged, to inquire, explore, discover and question the status quo,” they write.

If you are expecting the next sentence to begin with the word “but,” you get a gold star. “But,” the letter continues, “from time to time, American colleges and universities are subject to witness hate speech or activity that is disguised as free speech. Such has been the case in recent weeks at several colleges and universities in San Antonio and throughout Texas.”

These higher education leaders are very concerned and feel the need to enlighten the public that there is “a distinction between diversity of thought and disingenuous misrepresentation of free speech. We further attest that hate speech has no place at our colleges and universities.”

That is an idea we frequently hear these days – that “hate speech” is outside the boundaries of true diversity of thought and free speech. The writers don’t bring up the First Amendment, but it’s clear that they believe that “hate speech” (whatever it might be) is not constitutionally protected. Therefore, it is permissible (and certainly desirable) for colleges and university leaders to crack down on any expression that is “meant to provoke, spread hate, or create animosity and hostility.”

Here’s the problem. The First Amendment does not draw any distinction between good and bad categories of speech. The government (Congress in the wording, but by judicial extension over the years, all governmental officials now) must refrain from any and all actions that restricts freedom of speech or press.

Commenting on his blog, UCLA law professor and First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh writes, “But of course there is no hate speech exception in the First Amendment….and while universities aren’t banned from condemning speech they disapprove of, this statement — especially if read by students who aren’t up on First Amendment law — strikes me as suggesting that the universities will actually punish such speech (since it’s not “free speech” and it’s not “accepted.”) Yet such punishment of unwelcome viewpoints would be unconstitutional.”

The Founders wrote the First Amendment as they did for a good reason, namely that they did not want the government deciding what speech would be allowed and what speech can be censored or punished. Their wisdom is more apparent than ever, given the climate on so many American college campuses, with students declaring that they are entitled to shout down any speech or destroy any written communication they call “hate speech.” They aren’t, and neither are the people who run colleges and universities.

We have reached the point where any argument that clashes with students’ “progressive” beliefs is labeled “hate speech.” Instead of pushing schools down this slippery slope, higher education leaders should reassert that there is only one proper way to respond to ideas you dislike – with reasoned arguments.

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