By Shanna O’Mara and Jessica Hergert
Just under half of Rider students are aware that hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, with a slight majority answering incorrectly or admitting they don’t know, according to a poll recently conducted on campus.
A survey was distributed via email to all students on the Lawrenceville and Princeton campuses, attracting 402 participants of various majors, years and political affiliations. About 80 percent of respondents were female.
This collective response about the legality of hate speech aligns with broader statistics released after a national poll was conducted by John Villasenor, a Brookings Institute senior fellow and professor at the University of California in Los Angeles.
The research reported that 40 percent of students do not believe the First Amendment protects hate speech.
Villasenor polled 1,500 undergraduate students at various four-year colleges across the country.
“I don’t believe in the concept of hate speech,” said freshman marketing major Kristen Mallia. “I believe that speech can be negative and not nice, but the overall concept of hate speech doesn’t make much sense because who determines what is hateful and what isn’t? Every person has different standards for what they deem acceptable, and I think it is a really dangerous idea to allow a group of people to determine what is OK to say, think or feel.”
The United States Supreme Court has defined hate speech as a communication that directly attacks a person of any particular race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability or gender based on attributes of that classification. Hate crime, referring to conduct motivated by similar factors, is illegal.
Some people also confuse hate speech with offensive speech, although both are protected under the United States Constitution.
“I would define hate speech as people saying words to purposely hurt another human being,” said freshman musical theater major Tessa Douglas.
Pamela Brown, professor of communication law, said the lack of knowledge about the subject may come from limited education.
“Ideally, everyone in America would learn the reason why the writers of our Constitution included the First Amendment and understand the essential role free speech plays in our democracy — and they wouldn’t have to go to college to acquire this knowledge,” she said. “Civics education should happen in the lower grades and be frequently reinforced. Of course, a college course goes into greater depth and thoroughly explores the challenges that come with freedom of speech, but I don’t believe such a course needs to be required of all students on the college level — especially if the basics are taught in the pre-college years.”
Pointing out that, as a Jewish American, she has faced adversity throughout her life, she continued, “Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like those basics of citizenship are being taught well today. Feelings have replaced reasoning as the basis for reaction to unpleasant speech, and I think the writers of our Constitution would find that very disheartening. And I say that as a member of a group that has been a perennial target of hate speech and hate action, including at the present time.”
Participants were also asked if the First Amendment requires balance in terms of speakers on campus; if someone with one view presents a controversial topic, is another person legally needed to represent the other side?
Fifty-nine percent said yes.
Mallia fell into this majority, saying “opposing views are crucial” to expand the marketplace of ideas.
Graduate student Francesca Massari pointed to a dangerous trend that emerges when only one perspective is shared.
“The university should be responsible for bringing in speakers to represent many viewpoints,” said Massari. “Favoring one political side only encourages closed-mindedness.”
Freshman biology major Samantha Singh said students also need to remember they have the choice to attend an event that may offend them.
“If it’s a controversial speaker and it is not out there publicly – it’s enclosed in a classroom – people are not obligated to go to it,” she said. “So, if they know they are going to be offended, I don’t know why they would go there. It’s not unconstitutional or unjustified to have a speaker like that come.”
Although it is not legally mandated to present two sides of an issue when choosing on-campus speakers, Rider students seem to fall in line with a national trend. Villasenor’s poll revealed that 6-in-10 agreed balance is required.
Of those polled nationally, 19 percent said it is acceptable for a student groups to use violence to disrupt a controversial speech and prevent the audience from hearing it.
Only about 3 percent of Rider students agreed that violence is acceptable, although about 30 percent said it is alright for a student group to “loudly and repeatedly” shout over the speaker to block out the message.
Of the 14 Rider students who condoned the use of violence, nine were Democrats, three were independents and two were Republicans. About half of all respondents said they were Democrats, 33 percent independent and 18 percent Republican.
“I do not believe violence is the answer,” Douglas said. “I think that there are better ways to disagree with another person. On a campus, violence should not happen. The students on campus should feel safe. If the words get too belligerent, then I think the noise will be OK, but I still think it is important to hear everyone’s opinion, no matter how much you disagree with them.”
Interestingly, of the 14 students who approved of violence disrupting speech, five deemed disruptive noise unacceptable. In other words, they do not think shouting should interrupt speech, but physical force may. Four were female Democrats and one was a male independent.
Mallia condemned force of any kind, citing the aftermath of political and social unrest in modern society.
Massari explained her stance on violence at Rider.
“Growing up in a diverse community helped me grow in terms of being responsive and respectful of others,” she said. “Being exposed to different types of opinions and backgrounds is crucial in preventing a hostile campus. We, as students, are responsible for creating a safe environment for others to express their opinions. While we may not agree with someone, we should treat them with respect rather than hostility by listening to what they have to say.”
Just last year, a conservative student group at Middlebury College invited author Charles Murray – who is best known for writing “The Bell Curve,” in which he linked socioeconomic status and intelligence with race – to speak at the school. Over 100 audience members from the liberal arts school turned their backs to the stage as he spoke. Some even followed him out of the building afterward. Several masked protesters allegedy shoved Murray and attacked his faculty interviewer, grabbing her hair and twisting her neck. She sustained injuries, including a concussion, The New York Times reported.
Mallia disagreed with the students’ reaction to the presentation, even if they were offended by the apparent bias in Murray’s work.
“Everyone has the right to speak unless they are inciting violence and, along with this, they should not be shut down with violence,” she said.
A speaker is legally punishable for their remarks only if they promote criminal behavior that is likely to occur immediately, according to Brown. This precedent comes out of a 1969 Supreme Court decision.
Although it seems many students at Rider and nationwide are ill-informed about hate speech versus conduct, as well as the societal value of opposing views, some are eager to learn more in an effort to minimize conflict.
“How could someone fully understand their own point of view when they make assumptions about the other side?” Mallia asked. “Diversity helps us grow.”
Douglas echoed this statement by stating, “I think it’s important to know the different opinions of the discussion before joining in. College students, especially, should not be sheltered from the problems and debates we have in America.”
Additional reporting by Megan Lupo