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Friday, August 02, 2019

Free speech on campus

A random assortment of free-speech controversies on campus. Some were discussed in programs at SEALS.

• Complaints about MAGA hats (and other clothing) in the classroom are becoming a somewhat common thing for deans to deal with, complaints coming more from students than faculty. For the moment, everyone seems to conclude that the clothing is permitted as protected speech that, while offensive and derogatory to many, is tied to the sitting President and within the bounds of allowable public discourse. Although one colleague wondered about a time we could have said the same about a swastika, when that changed for the swastika, and when that might change for MAGA. The only true solution is a school or classroom dress code, which nobody seems to want.

• What is worse--the epithet or the offensive idea behind the epithet? Should it be impermissible for someone to use a derogatory word--even when that word is contained in course materials being discussed--but permissible for someone to use the precise language describing an idea we now regard as offensive? Is it possible to distinguish them?

For example, what is the difference between quoting from cases the derogatory words for African-Americans, people with mental disabilities, or undocumented immigrants, and quoting  the derogatory ideas about women in Justice Bradley's concurring opinion in Bradwell v. Illinois. For another example, what is the difference between one student calling another student a derogatory name and one student spouting, approvingly, derogatory ideas as part of the class discussion (e.g., minority populations causing more crime); the former should be sanctioned because students should not attack one another, but what about the latter?

On one hand, it seems odd that the word is worse than the idea. On the other, if you treat them the same and sanction (as opposed to challenging and exposing) the expression of "wrong" ideas in a class discussion, it really does interfere with the supposed academic mission of exploring ideas and seeking truth. And you can respond to, challenge, and demonstrate the wrong-headedness of an idea; you cannot do that with an epithet (this is the justification for the fighting-words doctrine).

• I learned about an ongoing controversy at the University of Tennessee. The state and the university have been trying to defund the student group Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee (SEAT) and its signature event, "Sex Week." The legislature passed a law prohibiting state funds from being used for Sex Week. This was not a huge deal, because most of SEAT's non-private funds came from the student-activities fees program. Under Rosenberger, the university could not deny funds to SEAT because of disagreement with its sex-positive (and sex-provocative) viewpoint.*

[*] Rosenberger remains my favorite unintended-consequences case, in which a victory for one political position has been used as precedent to provide victories for the opposite political position. Religious conservatives cheered the decision, which held that the state could not deny activities funds to religious organizations. But the case's staunch prohibition on viewpoint discrimination has been used to stop university efforts to defund all manner of liberal student groups. I think this may make an interesting article, especially in showing the difference between judgment and opinion/precedent.

The university's solution, imposed after SEAT refused to "compromise with university administrators who have asked it annually to 'tone it down' and consider the impact of its language choices"** was to eliminate the student-activities fee pool, replacing it with a system in which the university approves and funds all speakers and programs. The university hopes this converts all student programs into the university's speech, allowing the university to pick and choose based on viewpoint or any other considerations. The new program has not been implemented, so it remains to be seen how it plays out.

I think it is a matter of allies. Right now, most student groups oppose the program; College Democrats and College Republicans both hate it. If many student groups do not get money under the new scheme, SEAT will continue to have many allies in the fight. If everyone gets money except SEAT (which is what the university and state hope will happen), SEAT may find itself alone in the fight.

[**] In other words, compromise by changing your speech to make it more palatable to the government.

• Last spring, three white University of Mississippi students posed holding weapons in front of an Emmett Till memorial the was riddled with bullet holes; the photo was taken by a fourth, unknown person, and posted on the private social-media page of one of the students. The identified students were suspended by their fraternity. The university referred the matter to the FBI, but did not continue its investigation because, it claims, it was unaware that the FBI had completed its investigation (the FBI concluded that the photograph was not a specific threat). News stories question how the university responded to that initial bias report in March, particularly whether the university knew the identities of the students at that time (they are Ben LeClere, John Lowe and Howell Logan). The university says it will resume its student-conduct investigation, although it initially said the photo did not violate the code of conduct because it happened off-campus in a non-school setting. And the story seems to be wrapped in broader discussions of removing Confederate monuments on campus.

Is there any doubt that the photo and posing in front of the monument are protected by the First Amendment? This is not an unprotected "true threat" because it is not targeted at "a particular individual or group of individuals." It occurred off campus and was posted to a private social-media page; so even if we allow a university greater leeway to regulate racist speech on the quad or in the dorm, it does not extend to these actions. The photo is racist and offensive and I am glad their fraternity expelled them. I would like to see the university take more seriously, in word and deed, its obligation to engage in counter-speech. And perhaps the three will crawl back into hiding. But a public university's speech code is limited by the First Amendment, which prohibits government from sanctioning someone for engaging in protected speech, no matter how much we hate what they say.

Update: An Ole Miss faculty member pointed to this 2016 story of two students who pleaded guilty to civil rights violations for hanging a noose and a Confederate flag around the campus statute of James Meredith. Other than one happening on campus and one off (which is irrelevant to the criminal charges), it is hard to see a meaningful distinction between this and the current case--they are equally threatening or equally non-directed.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 2, 2019 at 10:25 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink

Comments

Prove it beyond a reasonable doubt or even by a preponderance. There may be bullets or casings or something else that the state has found; if so, none of the stories have reported that. All they have is the photograph--that would not get passed a motion for judgment of acquittal.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 2, 2019 11:57:22 AM

seriously? The evidence is they are standing next to a sign with bullet holes in it holding guns and posing like trophy hunters. They shot the sign. Just because the authorities in Mississippi are playing dumb doesn't mean we have to.

Posted by: pc | Aug 2, 2019 11:50:31 AM

I have not heard of any evidence that they shot the sign (bullet holes in the sign are a long-standing problem--I think this may be the 2d or 3d sign the government has erected).

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 2, 2019 11:24:22 AM

isn't shooting a memorial sign a crime in Mississippi?

Posted by: pc | Aug 2, 2019 10:49:32 AM

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