Freedom of Speech on Campus: Even Racial Slurs?

Last week I shared on Facebook this video of J.K. Rowling supporting Donald Trump’s right to travel to Britain and “be offensive and bigoted,” because “his freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot.” I wrote, “The same goes for offensive and bigoted speech on college campuses.”

That comment elicited this response from my friend Cliff, which I copy here with his permission:

The words “freedom of speech” encapsulated in the First Amendment to the Constitution refer mainly to curbs on government from stifling freedom of expression by citizens, especially in regard to criticism of the government. … I still think that there are limits to “freedom of speech” outside of a government context that are very important to observe. Do you think, for example, that Donald Trump (or any other convenient boogeyman of the moment) has the right to go onto the campus of, say, Morehouse College or Howard University and call the majority of the student population on those campuses the N-word?

This is an important question. Here’s my response:

Cliff, very skillful, and painful, challenge to the free speech position I espoused here and think I do want to defend. …

Morehouse College and Howard University are both private institutions, so Trump’s rights, in your hypothetical, would depend on their policies. He has no *right* even to walk on their campuses without permission. On their own campus they have the right to exclude or expel anyone they see fit, as long as they aren’t thereby breaking a contract with that person or something like that.

But *should* Morehouse, Howard, and all universities for that matter, have a free speech policy?

If so, should it go so far as to let odious people say odious things, even calling people the N-word? Suppose the answer is no; how would they craft, and how would they enforce, a policy that forbade the expression of certain words or ideas? Wouldn’t there be a danger in that? Could they make a complete list of what was forbidden, or would they leave it to somebody’s discretion? Either approach would be fraught with dangers to the open expression of worthwhile speech, wouldn’t it? I wonder if Morehouse and Howard students are allowed to call one another the N-word? I would guess they are; I think they should be. Should the institutions hold that black people there may use the N-word but white people may not? That seems arbitrary and wrong to me; I think everyone should be treated alike, regardless of skin color.

On a college campus, of all places, shouldn’t bad expression be answered by better expression, rather than by blows or censorship? I think it should. I think that would be best for the institutions and even for the offended students. In this regard I think of the way some clever people years ago protested the march of the Ku Klux Klan through an area of Skokie, Illinois where Jewish holocaust survivors lived. They mooned the marching Klansmen.

As ugly and wrong as I think it would be for a powerful white (and contemptible in so many ways) guy like Donald Trump to sling racial slurs on a predominantly black campus…, I think the colleges and their students should allow him to do so.

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