Panelists, Students Debate Freedom of Speech

“It’s one thing to say ‘No one’s in favor of hate speech,’ but what is it?” Emory University School of Law Professor Tom Arthur asked at Emory’s first Freedom of Expression forum.

This question formed the crux of the Jan. 26 evening panel and discussion held in Winship Ballroom and proved to be an extremely controversial topic, illustrating the campus-wide disagreement on the issue of free speech.

Ed Lee, Emory University director of debate, led the panel of Emory University School of Law Professors Tom Arthur and Alexander “Sasha” Volokh, and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) Director Azhar Majeed. After responding to questions from Lee, the panelists opened the floor up for questions from and open discussion with the audience, in which many opposing viewpoints surfaced.

The Panel

“Think about epithets,” Arthur said. While epithets, such as the N-word, could be considered fighting words, they are protected by the First Amendment.

Majeed emphasized that because some “hate speech” is constitutionally protected, it can be difficult for universities to know when to regulate it on forums, such as the smartphone application Yik Yak.

“Even if it’s particularly nasty and targeting individuals or groups, that doesn’t rise to the level of actual harassment, discrimination or disruption of the educational process,” he said.

Nonetheless, Majeed said that it is important for universities to find the line between protected speech and unprotected speech, adding that credible threats to safety or well-being should be regulated.

Arthur disagreed with Majeed, saying that protected speech cannot be regulated without severe consequences

“At some point, people will be afraid to say anything, because you don’t know what hate speech is.”

Volokh said that private universities should be able to choose their own unique freedom of expression policies.

“We won’t figure out which policies are good and bad unless we can debate these issues without having to worry that we are going to be thrown into jail or kicked out of the University, he said. “ That is absolutely essential.”

Volokh added that restricting viewpoints equates to “essentially shutting down the life of the mind. You are saying that you can think about this issue; here’s the viewpoint you can think about it from.”

The Discussion

Business School junior Lolade Oshin, a representative of the Black Student Association (BSA) at Emory, ramped up the discussion when she took the floor after the panel opened up for discussion.

“The reason why I’m here at Emory, predominantly, is because I want to make the world a safer place for people who look like me,” she said. “I want to work to change the definition of terms like racism, freedom of speech, etc., because I’m tired of these terms that affect my life every day being defined by people who don’t know the effect of them.”

She turned to Frank Lechner, professor of sociology at Emory who was sitting in the crowd, and asked if he wrote a recent editorial for The Emory Wheel. In his Dec. 1 editorial, Lechner wrote that the University lacked important evidence to assess claims made by the Black Students at Emory.

“Yeah. Not a fan of it,” Oshin said. “I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it because it made me not want to get out of bed.”

Then, pointing to a student across the room, she expressed how a comment the student had made at a Yik Yak hearing triggered her.

After some silence, Oshin said, “It’s uncomfortable, right? … That’s what it’s like to be black at Emory. Every single day, people are attacking you. They may not be using your name, but they’re talking about you.”

Majeed responded that he fears that stripping someone of their First Amendment rights may backfire, pushing them to become more bigoted.

Arthur and Volokh argued that the students calling for censorship are overly sensitive and unrealistic.

“You’re going to graduate, you’re going to go out into the real world, and who’s going to be out in the real world? President Donald Trump,” Volokh said.

However, College sophomore Deandre Miles-Hercules responded that students need to have personal responsibility.

“If you want to say something stupid and ignorant, that’s fine – say it on Facebook. If you stand that strongly behind your opinions, say it on a public forum,” he said.

Miles-Hercules said the forum’s approach to the issue was too semantical. “It’s about making people’s lives better, not looking at this policy, regulation and law school terminology,” he said. “It’s about people, and let’s keep it that way.”