On the Front Lines of Free Speech

Education, First Amendment, General Interest

By: Eva Rios-Alvarado

What is more American than protecting the first Amendment? Whether it be free speech or hate speech, differing opinions will exist in the room. In educational settings, educators are preparing students for life where there are rooms filled with all forms of conflicting ideas and practices.

If we infer students potentially will be in these rooms then public spaces are in a crisis. Universities, schools of all levels, and others are confronting actions and rhetoric of hate. Should we even be surprised? Currently, the US political stage is littered with hate rhetoric. The verbal stench of ill-informed, racist and misogynist ideas and actions, as we have seen in mass-shootings, harm to immigrants, and the systematic killing of black people, is visibly activated. Case in point, the current President Donald Trump utters ignorant statements like “all immigrants are rapists” and has made some illogical connection that all immigrants are somehow part of MS 13. What do you think, are his statements freedom of speech or examples of hate speech?

Given the verbal executive office agenda, is it contentious to say hate speech is parading around as free speech. Either way, the energy of the educator, hopefully is harnessed for practices of value. Responding is where some of the power of practice lives.

Consider these three questions. If you find any value in making the campus, classroom, and library a place of respectful differing opinions, then let’s start here:

Ask yourself,

  • What are the implications of ignoring a colleague’s or student’s thoughts, perhaps a view point, in an educational setting?
  • Have you ever been in the classroom and a student expresses a viewpoint which is highly flammable to others in the room? What do you say or do?
  • When you attend an event, perhaps a banned books week program or censorship discussion, has the speaker ever made commentary which boiled your blood?

Now, think of ways to proactively respond.

How educators respond is the bottom line. Simply, what can educators do before an escalation of events transpire and also foster a democratic classroom for the evolving idea-spheres of students. Educators should not need to fear for their lives or jobs when teaching, but yet we do. Similarly, students should feel safe to explore their ideas. Some organizations have created toolkits and resources for educators.

venn diagram

Still “most things are in the grey area,” as described from a Redland University forum in 2017. How does grey area help when in the moment? If all speech is free speech, faculty have a grey zone. In the 2012 report, Equal Education Opportunity and Free Speech on Public College and University Campuses in California, some of the free speech nuances of the CSU and UC systems in contrast to the California Community College are explained. Community Colleges are at more odds. With 72 unique college districts in California, decentralization of policies occur where each district has its own policies related to freedom of speech on campus. For community college faculty, the grey area is even more present in understanding the responsibilities and district practices. Similarly, California community colleges comprise the largest higher education system in the nation with a total reach of 2.9 million students at the time of this report, which means there are major differences of practice among this massive population.

With all the ambiguity, what are some things you can do to support your community?

If you are still feeling overwhelmed, try taking a moment to be self-reflective. I am struggling with this issue myself as an educator and librarian. Start with a CNN quiz, Is Hate Speech Free Speech, then consider what is important to you and teach from your passion.

Eva Rios-AlvaradoEva Rios-Alvarado is your glocal librarian. Her empowerment, spirituality, and beautiful-resistance stem from Xicana Feminist practice and philosophy. Currently, she leads projects in equity and outreach as Student Equity & Outreach Librarian at Mt. San Antonio College Library. With a B.A. in Geography and MS, in Library Information Science, she serves community college students exploring and crafting their information literacy repertoires. Eva’s leadership, through Banned Books Week, allows students and faculty to explore, participate, and interpret topics in intellectual freedom, freedom of speech, and censorship. Find her on Twitter @EvaRiosAlvarado. #XicanMLIS #LAallDay #librarianOfColor #locLA


  • The problem with Hate Speech is its definition. You can erect a few straw men like Donald Trump’s outrageous statements in order to justify hate speech laws and policies, but most of the time it’s simply a matter of disagreement. For example, if I say that there are only two forms of gender identity, male and female, I could be accused of uttering hate speech in any jurisdiction that has proclaimed otherwise, despite the fact that there is compelling scientific study to support this statement. Honest disagreement gets hardened into factional ideological warfare. Anyone that doesn’t totally adhere to your point of view becomes your enemy.

  • @David Broughall, I’m glad you bring up the obvious David. Disagreement is the grey area which can be interpreted on so many fronts. I believe that is why tolerance projects exists. I too feel overwhelmed with hate speech and the many forms it takes. I hope by writing this post educators and community can support thinkers to develop their thoughts in supportive environments at an early age or even in college. Democratic spaces in the classroom model environments for learners to grow and consider others.

  • Elvia
    I am not an academic, but as a person from the older generation, free speech is a right that we need to continue to defend. Though I am glad that organizations like the ACLU try to define appropriate legal boundaries so that Hate speech doesn’t get out of hand. I have a friend who experienced “paranoia” and fear about speaking one’s mind in his country of origin years ago because of the real consequences such as torture or death for people that spoke out. It is hard to keep a balance between free speech and hate speech. I hope we continue to struggle with defining the parameters of both.

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