Hate Speech: What’s to Hate?
Freedom of speech is one of principles upon which our nation was founded. Recently however, some people have become decreasingly concerned with the fundamental idea of free speech, and increasingly concerned with how the content of said speech affects our culture. Most would maintain that it is a privilege to live in a country and attend a university where they are granted the freedom to express their beliefs as they please. Yet as soon as, in the spirit of open discourse, someone expresses an idea which undermines another’s own agenda or offends a specific group of people, many are quick to return the affront by villainizing them, accusing them of breaching the code of social ethics and committing the heinous crime of propagating hate speech.
Unfortunately, “hate speech” has become an accusation that can be casually flung at people and their actions both in the political sphere as well as on our campus. What is important to note is that hate speech, so long as its purpose is not to incite violence, is included in our constitutional right to free speech.
The Constitution does not state that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech unless it’s mean--it states that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. This alone should delegitimize the contemporary tendency to criminalize those guilty of promulgating their racist, sexist, homophobic, antisemitic, and Islamophobic ideas. As immoral and hurtful as the expression of those views may seem, they are not only legal, but are an exercising of our constitutional right.
Yeshiva University is a private institution; it can make its own rules and has the right to enforce speech regulations. YU, however, has no speech codes. This gives unbridled power to the university, allowing it to judge potential offenses on a case-by-case basis. So, while hate speech is not officially banned by the university, the administration reserves the right to arbitrarily decide what it deems inappropriate. This is in essence an enactment of censorship in its most extreme form. By not telling students what they are and are not allowed to say, they both entice outspoken students to push the envelope of acceptability and discourage the voices of those too scared that their opinions will fall outside of the mysterious bounds of “appropriateness” which the administration has set.
The recent trend to use the Nagel Wall as an instrument for protest, and the reaction to the establishment of the YU Feminists Club, lie at the center of the free speech conversation on campus. Both the tearing down of said protests by fellow students and the hurtful comments made on YU Marketplace in response to the founding of The YU Feminists Club have been likened to "hate speech," which allegedly only seeks to silence the minority voice. In both instances, the original initiatives were valiant attempts by student activists to defend the human rights and fight for social justice of a particular group. The fundamental issue with calling these counter-protests hate speech is that the assumption is that anything which doesn’t agree with, or prioritize, fighting for human rights or equality as determined by the speaker discriminates against the minority group being spoken for, and therefore means to insult them.
Even if we were to accept this flawed reasoning as legitimate and assume that removing a mural or commenting hurtful things on a Facebook page constituted hate speech, it would still be important to acknowledge the danger in silencing such actions. The notion that the only way to express a dissenting opinion is to be forced to engage directly with those whose stances you wish to dispute, on their terms, is absurd. Tearing down the mural, albeit cowardly and unimpressive, is as much an expression of disapproval as the construction of one’s own mural would be.
The expression of hate speech creates a scenario that allows those who disagree to speak up; it does not delegitimize the positions of those who feel targeted just because it hurts their feelings. Freedom of speech is not some curtain racists and bigots hide behind; racism and bigotry, while revolting and immoral, are both direct expressions of freedom of speech. The lack of speech censorship serves a dual purpose and meets the needs of self expression for all parties. By allowing hate to speak, we protect freedom of speech and self expression. Those who find such speech appalling remain free to utilize their free speech to challenge the hate, but not to suppress it.
In an attempt to decry the expression of these unpleasant opinions, students call on YU to reprimand the offenders on the grounds that they are students at a Torah institution. Unaware of the fact that YU has no official speech codes, students assert, rightfully so, that the expression of these hurtful views are antithetical to Torah Judaism and ask YU to use that claim as a basis on which to condemn these reprehensible deeds.
As Editor-in-Chief of The Commentator, Doron Levine, expressed earlier this year in his editorial, “Not a Theocracy,” although YU is guided by Jewish values on an institutional level, it has not historically held its individual students to halachik standards. While it is true that hateful remarks are at odds with the decency and common morality that Torah demands of us, and that the university can and should speak out when the views of their students are not in line with the institution’s views, the expression of said views does not ask of the university to punish those who espouse them. Asking the university to cast a wide net when it comes to censorship on campus plays directly into their hands. If they, as an administration, have maintained a policy of enforcing speech codes without a codified set of rules, then asking them to censor more than they already have is limiting ourselves in terms of speech that will be deemed acceptable in the future. Narrowing the field of discourse to something much smaller than it should be.
While I do not stand in solidarity with those who hold or express sexist, racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, or even anti-semitic opinions, I respect the rights of individuals to express those opinions. By allowing for, and being receptive to, the voices of others, no matter how extreme or distasteful they may be, we can create a dialogue which allows for people to comfortably express themselves and to develop their own opinions. These extremes, both the offensive and the hypersensitive, are what allow for the very existence of the elusive Maimonidean acme of balance, and give people the ability to to cultivate their individualized and nuanced stances.