OPINION: The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee a platform

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

Earlier this month, the organizers of a white supremacist rally at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville aimed to spark a national dialogue about the perceived oppression of the contemporary heterosexual, white male. But their march seems to have spurred another debate — one about free speech and whether the First Amendment protects hate speech.

The question is certainly being asked and hotly debated at universities across the country. In the wake of the Charlottesville rallies that killed one anti-racism protester and resulted in numerous injuries and violent confrontations, Texas A&M University and, more recently, the University of Florida denied requests for Richard Spencer, a self-identified leader of the “alt-right” movement who has called for ethnic cleansing, to speak on their campuses. But UC Berkeley is preparing for a week in which both conservative pundits Milo Yiannopoulos, who has likened black people to apes and feminists to Nazis, and Ann Coulter, who has argued against women’s voting rights, will both be speaking per the invitation of the school’s conservative newspaper, The Berkeley Patriot.

The issue of free speech has been widely discussed on college campuses since the Vietnam War era. Since then, young people have been at the forefront of peaceful protests and political expression. But today’s dialogue on college campuses tends to be laced with misinformation and ignorance about Supreme Court cases and constitutional laws that define free speech. Notably, one thing many self-identified free speech advocates who are quick to take up arms at the first challenge to a provocative speaker seem to forget is that the First Amendment guarantees freedom from censorship — it does not guarantee a platform to spew hate.

The First Amendment guarantees that Yiannopoulos or Coulter could speak their minds in a public place; it does not guarantee them a stage and an audience at a university. In the same way, the federal government and public schools cannot censor nonviolent statements, but simultaneously owe no obligation to stream individuals on Facebook Live or bring them to speak before the White House lawn. Refusal to offer this platform is not a violation of someone’s First Amendment rights. Newspapers have no obligation to publish op-eds or letters to the editor that they are disinclined to for whatever reason, and the federal government cannot censor newspapers.

And in the same vein, Twitter and many other websites, social media platforms and hosting servers are private domains and it is fully up to their discretion how hate speech and harassment are dealt with. The First Amendment delineates the obligations of government institutions; these same obligations are not shared by private companies.

Google had the right to terminate an employee whose speech directly targeted a demographic of employees and established a hostile workplace environment earlier this month. The argument that a private company violated the First Amendment is a moot one, and the argument that individuals can say and do anything in their places of work without consequences is the same argument that justifies — and even encourages — sexual harassment and bullying.

Circling back to college campuses, UC Berkeley has been the epicenter of the campus free speech debate since a violent riot predominantly led by anarchists unaffiliated with the school unfolded when Yiannopoulos last tried to speak earlier this year. But it’s important to note that students who protest speaking appearances by the far-right are not violating anyone’s free speech rights either. If anything, young people who protest provocative speakers are simply putting their own free speech rights to use, and learning important lessons about speaking their minds and fighting for their convictions.

In either case, it’s often not universities but campus organizations that are inviting controversial speakers. And if universities deny the appearances of these speakers, more often than not this is out of safety concerns rather than malicious attempts at censorship. Doing so is certainly not a violation of anyone’s rights.

The free speech debate can seem polarizing on college campuses, where people who have never been the subject of racial hatred and stereotyping, nor of sexual harassment and bullying, argue that individuals should be allowed to say anything without consequences, and people who suffer from this ambivalence toward racism argue the opposite.

Still, there is one bipartisan line of thought, which suggests that speech that is simply advocating contrarian ideals — that women are biologically inferior to men as intellectuals, that African Americans are biologically inferior to white people — but isn’t overtly violent, ought to be respected and even given a platform. This suggests that any comments, as long as they’re short of directly calling for violence, are protected.

However, this should raise the question of how taking away women’s right to vote or be in the workplace, or removing minorities from the country and implementing ethnic cleansing — the concepts demanded by much of the speech of the “alt-right” — could be done without violence or the threat of it. And welcoming these ideas on campus may not celebrate or glorify hatred, but doing so certainly contributes to normalizing it. In the same vein, equating this hate speech to “left-wing extremism” — the alt-right’s term for calls to respect the pronouns of trans people and establish a national health care system — is a ploy to equate a vocal movement for equality to a vocal movement for inequality.

Too often in the  campus dialogue around free speech are the most direct stakeholders marginalized. In society today, individuals of marginalized demographics are intimidated and pressured into silence when high-profile speakers come to preach about white supremacy and patriarchy. Their voices are excluded from a media narrative told by majority white reporters, and their experiences are undeniably being overlooked by a U.S. Congress that is 80 percent white, 80 percent male and 92 percent Christian.

The exclusion of minorities and marginalized Americans from our collective national dialogue remains a troubling issue in itself. But all of this is sidelined in a current free speech dialogue dominated by white men who feel victimized by being discouraged from saying the “N-word.”

4 replies
  1. Tyler Fox
    Tyler Fox says:

    I can tell that the writer has not read the classic texts on this matter, such as Thomas Paine’s introduction to the Age of Reason, John Milton’s Areopagitica and John Mills essay “On Liberty” where it is variously said, but I’ll attempt to summarize for the writer of this article. What they say is, it’s not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen and to hear. And every time you silence somebody, you make yourself a prisoner of your own action, because you deny yourself the right to hear something.

    In other words, your own right to hear and be exposed is as much involved in all these cases as is the right of the other to voice his or her view. Indeed as John Stuart Mill said, if all in society were agreed on the truth and beauty and value of one proposition, all except one person, it would be most important — in fact, it would become even more important — that that one heretic be heard, because we would still benefit from his perhaps outrageous or appalling view.

    The idea speech causes violence is indeed a testy one. . The whole premise of the article that “hate speech has no right to a platform, though people have the right to say it” is in part true and in part false. But the writer hides behind its ambiguity. If a university such as UC Berkely, which is a public institution, thus is “public” in the sense that all rights apply to those who attend. UC Berkely is not a private institution such as google or twitter, thus a person’s right to free speech is in the most absolute sense protected regardless of its content or some arbitrary measure of “this speech is bad or this speech is good.” Never mind the impossibility of finding an individual or body to assume the omnipotent role of knowing when my speech has gone too far, where is the limit, what will be the reaction, who can dictate what I can read or hear or read? Just for the sake of this comment, I would not give that job to the writer of this article. And anyone who thinks himself not up to the challenge to decide for themselves what they can read or hear shall not push that agenda on me.

    As to denying a platform, Abraham Lincoln once said “So I would not be the no slave, So I would not be the master.” Such as all individuals should claim the right to not be censored or denied platform, we should also not be the censor or the one to deny them. In other words when I am offended by ideas like that if I don’t believe in the virgin birth I am going to Hell, I claim the right to be offended, but I don’t go around using a hecklers veto on speakers or burn down/destroy statues of the virgin Mary or churches, I’m too decent for that. And those who advocate violence or physical reprisal in response to the speech they find offense in is contemptible.

    Perhaps one of the most profound statements on freedom of speech comes from Justice Holmes who said that speech may be limited when edified as an action like shouting fire in a crowded theater. Some context to one of the stupidest statements ever made from the bench is an order. What Holmes was doing in that case was sending to life imprisonment a group of Yiddish speaking Socialists who published a pamphlet in New York opposing Mr. Wilson’s involvement in the First World War, in other words no matter how high minded or the “moral intent” of what the writer suggests what you end with is exactly that. A group of Yiddish socialists being imprisoned on a major question of the day. Bear in mind that every time you violate or propose to violate the free speech of someone else, in potencia, you’re making a rod for own back. And finally, the question utterly dodged by the writer in her shady article when calling speech hateful and accusing speech of being violent: who’s going to decide?

    To whom do you award the right to decide which speech is harmful or who is the harmful speaker? Or determine in advance what are the harmful consequences going to be, that we know enough about in advance to prevent? To whom would you give this job? To whom are you going to award the job of being the censor? Isn’t it a famous old story that the man who has to read all the pornography, in order to decide what’s fit to be passed and what’s fit not to be, is the man most likely to be debauched? Does anyone know anyone to whom you’d give this job? Does anyone have a nominee? I can tell you right now that there is no one good enough to decide what I can read or hear. But the writer is inferring there must be such a person. Or is counting on authority like the government or the school to do so. Well, the hell with that assertion then. It’s inviting us to be liars and hypocrites and to deny what we evidently know already. And that is it may not be determined in advance what words are apt or inapt. No one has the knowledge that would be required to make that call. And, more to the point, one has to suspect the motives of those who do so. In particular, the motives of those who are determined to be offended, like those now calling for the change of name of the USC mascot because he bears the same sounding name as Robert E. Lee’s horse. (our Traveler has one L, Lee’s Traveller had two)

    • Don Harmon
      Don Harmon says:

      Tyler, an outstanding essay. Well reasoned and beautifully written. I hope that time finds you in the USC School of Law one day.

  2. tanner
    tanner says:

    let’s put people in jail who say words that others “claim’ are offensive. but only the words that liberals claim are offensive. still ok to say honkie or cracker but no sp–, nig—, or r– hea-.

    this will totally empower the losers, like the fat stupid she-blobs on our campuses. we don’t need no stinkin supreme court, we can let the fat shebeasts decide what is proper.

  3. Don Harmon
    Don Harmon says:

    Well put! That is an interesting argument I have not heard among the clamor between left and right. It suggests that a government, Federal, state or local, is not obliged to provide a speaking place. OK. That said, public speaking places, like parks, town squares, public schools and especially streets and so on, already exist. So should any group be permitted to use them without a permit? Or be barred because of presumed content of hatred and the need for violence? Or parade without a permit?

    The Nazi, Klan, white supremacy racist marchers, yes, pour out vile hate. Yet how does a government deny them the right to disgorge their disgusting vitriol? I wish I knew. The German government has passed laws prohibiting Nazi outpourings, symbolism, displays, Heil Hitler salutes, and so on – praise them – but they are not bound by the First Amendment.

    Law students? Do you have any legal points to make that clarify this matter beyond quoting the First Amendment?

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