what's the line between free speech and hate speech on campus?

College students from across America tell i-D what the mainstream media is getting wrong about their activism.

by André-Naquian Wheeler
07 June 2017, 4:15pm

Last week, Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin began a concerted effort to pass a bill that would expel or suspend college students that disrupt speakers on campus.

Since Trump won the presidential election in November, there has been a resurgence in protests on college campuses across America. A significant number of these demonstrations have been in response to controversial speakers like Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Charles Murray visiting campuses to give speeches and talks — sometimes at the invitation of the university's administration or a student club, and sometimes, in the case of Charles Murray at Middlebury, of their own accord. At schools like UC Berkeley, Middlebury, and Bard, students have rallied together to voice their disapproval. The demonstrations have produced results. UC Berkeley canceled Ann Coulter's scheduled speech in April, citing safety concerns, and NYU postponed an appearance by Lucian Wintrich, a White House reporter for the conservative tabloid site Gateway Pundit, before finally allowing the event to occur a month after its originally scheduled date.

Critics — from the left and the right — have accused these student protesters of violating the free speech rights of conservative commentators. For example, The Atlantic bluntly condemned the protests at UC Berkeley in April with an op-ed titled "Everyone Has a Right to Free Speech — Even Milo." However, a large number of the students i-D talked to argued that they are attempting to protect minority students' safety and well-being. "I think that a lot of the Atlantic and Slate articles are much more far-right than the Fox News stuff," says Hayden Hard, 21, an anthropology major at Bard College and club officer for the student publication Bard Free Press. He played a crucial role in voicing disapproval of Wintrich's appearance at his school by interviewing with publications like Mic. "It's a misrepresentation and miscommunication of what left-leaning students are demanding, which is a non-combative way of hate speech."

Which raises the question: where is the line between free speech and hate speech? Is the right to say whatever we want more important than the violent actions those words may inspire? Whether they are meant to be taken literally or not, the exclusionary, traditionalist, and alienating comments made by shock jocks like Tomi Lahren and Ann Coulter have very literal consequences for marginalized groups. For example, in 2015, at the beginning of a contentious election season that saw Ben Carson compare refugees to "rabid dogs" and Trump threaten to ban muslims from entering the country [this statement has since been removed from Trump's website] there was a 67% rise in hate crimes against Muslims over 2015, The New York Times reported. As our elementary school teachers chanted to us again and again as kids: words have consequences.

For context: American college campuses have, of course, seen their fair share of political demonstrations over the decades, and these demonstrations have always been met with their fair share of public condemnation. UC Berkeley — a historic hotbed for liberal activism — faced the ire of President Ronald Reagan after the school's 1964-65 Free Speech Movement. The movement arose in reaction to the Berkeley administration's decision to ban students from organizing or participating in political activity on campus (which had been largely centered on voicing anger about the Vietnam War).

The movement reached its apex on December 2, 1964 when thousands of students took over Sproul Hall, singing folk songs and watching movies during a sit-in. The students' progressive views triggered a stinging backlash from conservatives. In fact, the chief pillar of Ronald Reagan's campaign for Governor of California was promising to "clean up the mess" at UC Berkeley. The promise is eerily reminiscent of Donald Trump's reaction to UC Berkeley's disinvitation of Milo Yiannopoulos in February. The President turned to Twitter and threatened to revoke the public university's federal funds.

"I was at the Milo protest," says Billal Ahmed, 23, who graduated from Berkeley last year and still has personal ties to the college. He describes feeling unsafe and anxious during the protest against Milo Yiannopoulos's appearance, an intense police presence surrounding the crowd. "I saw a Trump supporter get hit with a flag — they were bleeding out." Ahmed was not even taking part in the protest. Passing through it was his only way to get home after work. "When I walked through it I was really scared and thinking, 'If I get trapped in here, I'll get arrested,'" he recounts. "I felt uncomfortable, but it also felt cool and exhilarating. I did have friends who got teargassed."

He says Berkeley's campus was as polarized as the nation following the demonstrations. Some of his friends who were still enrolled at UC Berkeley were split over whether they supported the protests or not. "I think there is a lot of political decisiveness on campus. It's kind of complicated because there are a lot of opinions and it's hard to simplify. These are issues that go beyond that simple dichotomy of 'liberals' and 'conservatives.' There were liberals that wanted Milo to speak, but there were also people who did not want Milo to speak because he's a troll. And then there were people who did not want him to speak because of the safety of marginalized communities."

As Ahmed and other students make clear, these mass protests aren't haphazard, hot-headed reactions to conservative politics. In most cases, the protests appear extremely thought-out by the students, who heavily weigh the political and sociological consequences of their actions. Students on the east coast, at Bard College, echoed this sentiment.

In April, Gateway Pundit's Lucian Wintrich — speaking on a panel organized by Bard faculty called "Across the Political Divide" — sparked students to organize a protest, citing his controversial journalism. Wintrich's internet "trolling" has been documented by a number of publications, from The New Yorker to The New York Times, and Gateway Pundit has been accused of disseminating fake news on multiple occasions.

On the day of Wintrich's appearance, Bard student Lexi Parra, along with other student activists, professors, and university administrators, staged peaceful protests and discussions centered on free speech — hoping to combat his controversial behavior with productive dialogue, Parra explained to i-D.

"We spent months discussing and planning the protest," says Parra. "We tried to have other ways of engagement that showed to the administration that we're not snowflake liberals; we're not upset superficially; we have real desires to discuss free speech and what that means under this administration. But giving a platform to the alt right who have no interest in meaningful discussion is not the way to do that."

Hayden Hard says Bard's liberal students are extremely mindful of how they will come across to mainstream media — making sure they do not offer easy material for their activism to be ridiculed or trivialized. "One thing is to be mindful of spectacle and performance," Hard says. "By responding to these speakers with grandiose performance, it's easy to feed into it and not subvert it." However, he still feels at a loss about how to get the mainstream media to take the students' actions seriously. "I still don't how to subvert [conservative speakers]. But making sure vulnerable populations are okay and safe should really take paramount [importance] over any theatrical or rhetorical actions."

Parra agrees with Hard's sentiments, saying the news coverage of college protests has been focused on the wrong things. "The free speech [of conservative speakers] is not what's at stake here," she argues. "The question our counter panel posed is: is it the right to free speech, or the right to be heard?" Parra went on to say that it is important that the jarring statements of polarizing speakers do not drown out the voices of minorities. What she and other Bard students are fighting for is not silencing people like Lucian Wintrich and Milo Yiannopoulos, but making sure everyone has the ability to make their voices heard. Because that is what the second amendment really is about.


Text André-Naquian Wheeler
Photography Wasi Daniju via Flickr Creative Commons 

Donald Trump
free speech
ann coulter
UC Berkeley