News, Academics

“Dialogue and Action” Panelists Weigh Free Speech and Hate Speech on University Campuses

Universities can and should have different rules for expression and speech than the public sphere, according to Kent Greenfield, Boston College Law professor and dean’s distinguished scholar. 

“I think that adopting the libertarianism of free speech doctrine is something that a university can choose to do, but need not,” Greenfield said. “I think universities can instead choose certain rules of discourse that govern their community to create an atmosphere and culture of learning.”

Greenfield spoke at an online panel on Monday evening about hate and free speech as part of a new speaker series titled “Dialogue and Action in an Age of Divides,” co-hosted by BC and eight other Massachusetts-based universities.

Roderick Ireland, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University, former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and moderator of the program, said that hate speech and free speech are both important topics in the world of higher education.

“It is our hope that programs such as this will lead to constructive dialogues on the significance of free speech and its limitations, especially in the context of controversies over the ways in which speech can relate to anti-semitism, Islamophobia, and other identity-based racism,” Ireland said.

Greenfield said educators play an important role in creating comfortable and safe learning environments for their students, especially when verbal tensions arise.

“Just like a hostile work environment, [where] the hostility created by speech can make it impossible for people to succeed professionally, a hostile learning environment can make it impossible for students to succeed academically,” Greenfield said. 

Inevitably, universities will make mistakes, according to Greenfield. Nevertheless, they should prioritize a safe learning environment over protecting the exchange of ideas, he added.

“I’d rather teach and learn and serve at a school—like Boston College—trying to make those difficult judgments, than at a school that throws up its hands and says, ‘These judgments are beyond us,’” Greenfield said. “Especially when the costs of open debate fall upon our most vulnerable, our most marginalized, our most at-risk students, staff, faculty.”

Andrew Leong, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Boston, shared a personal experience during grade school where, as an immigrant with minimal proficiency in the English language, he faced ridicule from his peers. 

“No matter what the social differences are … the minute that we, as teachers, as educators, understand that something is happening, that [a] particular student is being made fun of, we need to control the room, we need to change the dynamic,” Leong said. “That’s not something that we’ve really done in the past, or at least when I was growing up,” Leong said.

Andrew Sellars, clinical associate professor at Boston University School of Law, said hate speech is difficult to define without examining pre-existing power dynamics.

“We all approach our lives in the university with disparate power,” Sellars said. “We know and understand that power is tied to one’s identity, and there’s enormous literature on how one’s race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, can augment or diminish one’s relational power.”

But according to Sellars, hate speech codes can also have an adverse effect on the people they are designed to protect.

“Anytime that we create a hate speech code, for example, we are creating an enforceable rule that will empower someone to act as a censor or disciplinarian,” Sellars said. “We run the risk of augmenting discrimination in the name of mitigating it.”

Sellars said there are two concerns when it comes to evaluating hate speech.

“So these two concerns—the concern of discriminatory application of any prescription of hate speech, and the exclusionary effect of hateful speech—sit … in very obvious tension,” Sellars said.

According to Sellars, it is important to consider how certain words and phrases may be used and interpreted differently across and between groups of people.

“I think that we will come to a more constructive resolution if we think really carefully about how the same words that we might be using in one context will be interpreted so differently in another, as well as the identities and historical backgrounds that lead us to this moment,” Sellars said.

January 31, 2024