By: Kate Lechtenberg
Recently, College Pulse and the Knight Foundation published the results of their survey of over 4000 college students’ views on the First Amendment. The survey asks seven questions about the media, campus climate, campus speech and protests, hate speech, inclusivity, and offensive language. However, one question drove most of the headlines reporting on the speech.
That question was number 5: If you had to choose, which do you think is more important?
- Promoting an inclusive society that is welcoming to diverse groups
- Protecting citizens’ free speech rights
There are so many reasons why I hate taking surveys and why I cringe at the way surveys are spun in the media, but this question represents the most fundamental: questions that force a choice between two important ideals create binaries that oversimplify respondents’ beliefs and exacerbate our already polarized society. A question like this one suggests that respondents who chose “inclusive society” don’t care about free speech and that those who choose free speech don’t care about inclusiveness. My gut (Or is it common sense? Or is it foolishness? Hopefulness?) tells me that is not true. But the truth, the nuance, the shared values that all respondents share are not the focus of the survey–and they are certainly not the focus of the media reports of the College Pulse/Knight Foundation survey.
Moreover, I did not find any media reports or commentaries about the survey that discussed why women, LGBTQ students, non-Christian students, and students of color tended to prioritize an inclusive society, while straight, white, male, Christian students tended to prioritize free speech. Obviously, college students in the marginalized groups are more likely to have experienced the harm–whether it be emotional, relational, physical, or otherwise–of hate speech. If we continue to position individuals and groups who are concerned about the dangers of hate speech as over-sensitive censors who don’t understand the First Amendment, we will continue to miss an opportunity to listen to, learn from, and honor the experiences and knowledge of large—and growing—of U.S. citizens.
Let’s take a closer look at how polarizing headlines and false dichotomies flatten the notion of patriotism and simplify the complexity of people’s beliefs about free speech, hate speech, and inclusivity.
The power—and danger—of a headline
Media sources like the National Review tended to focus on the number of college students who expressed a belief that hate speech should not be protected under the First Amendment. Their headline reads “41 Percent of College Students Believe Hate Speech Shouldn’t Be Free Speech — They’re Wrong,” and the article describes these statistics as “pretty sad.” The article proceeds by highlighting hyperbolic examples of “offensive” language that the author deems indicative of an overzealous PC culture. The implication is that if college students were really patriotic, of course they would care more about protecting hate speech than creating an inclusive society. The survey requires students to make a false choice between inclusivity and free speech, and then it judges those who make the wrong, unpatriotic choice.
Similarly, Forbes focuses on the alleged “waning” in support for free speech rights: “New Report: Most College Students Agree that Campus Free Speech is Waning.” Of all the rich data in the College Pulse/Knight Foundation’s report, Forbes leads with the idea that “a bare majority of students still pay lip-service to the sanctity of the First Amendment.” The sacredness of the First Amendment is assumed in the Forbes article, but concerns about inclusivity are not considered important–let alone “sacred.”
Inside Higher Ed’s headline “Report: Students Favor Free Speech Rights, Inclusivity Almost Equally”, simply generalizes the findings, briefly the statistics on question 5, and provides a link to the full report. This broad overview is the least divisive, and it invites readers to read the survey and come to conclusions independently.
The right-leaning online newspaper The College Fix does focus on inclusivity, but not in a way that takes these concerns seriously. Besides using scare quotes to question the validity of “inclusivity,” this article, “College women and blacks favor ‘inclusivity’ over free speech, survey finds,” repeatedly describes women, students of color, and students of non-Christian students as “hostile” without seriously considering why these students might be concerned about inclusivity over protecting hate speech.
The danger of a false dichotomy (Or, Inclusivity is patriotic too)
These articles don’t take seriously is the consistent pattern that people of color, women, LGBTQ students, and followers of non-Christian religions are concerned about an inclusive society because they are more likely to have actually experienced the pain of hate speech. In these media reports, the important part is that they have chosen “wrong”—that is, against free speech––not that they are U.S. citizens whose concerns deserve to be heard.
These news organizations have chosen to reinforce the dichotomy inherent in the survey itself. Inclusivity and protecting free speech aren’t inherently opposed. We should be able to say, “Yes, protecting free speech is important, but so is listening to our fellow citizens’ voices and experiences. It is a tragedy that so many people feel and are endangered by hate speech, and it is our patriotic duty to try to make sure all citizens’ concerns are heard in civil discourse.” Instead, this survey and the subsequent news reports chose instead to support our the us vs. them, good vs. bad approach to democracy.
This consistent pattern of subtly or not-so-subtly deriding those (largely minority groups) concerned about inclusivity over the “sacredness” of free speech also leads to another subtle implication: that hate speech is not a problem that we need to or can worry about if we are patriotic.
But hate speech is a problem. A big one. Hate speech is not civil discourse. It does not represent U.S. values. I do believe that hate speech should continue be protected by the First Amendment––because allowing governments to restrict some kinds of speech, even the most odious is a slippery slope toward censorship and limited freedoms. However, in real life, there is not a single binary choice between patriotically protecting hate speech and unpatriotically showing concern for an inclusive society. Such a simplistic implication both maligns those concerned about inclusiveness and subtly applies that hate speech is something to value, not just tolerate. This is dangerous.
We should be concerned about the increase in hate crimes since the 2016 election. We should should take seriously the concerns that marginalized groups and individuals raise about the dangers of hate speech. At best, we should tolerate hate speech while working conscientiously to reduce or even eliminate its occurrence. Just because people have a right to say hateful things doesn’t mean that patriotic U.S. citizens and residents shouldn’t do everything in our power to stop people from hating, from spreading their hate, and from creating a threatening environment for millions of U.S. citizens and residents.
The Southern Poverty Law Center offers two resources to combat hate speech and hate crimes–while protecting free speech: Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide and The Alt-Right On Campus: What Students Need To Know. In addition, I hope that we can all listen to people we disagree with and honor that experiences that inform those disagreements. Learning from those we disagree and finding common ground can put us on the path to valuing both of these patriotic values–free speech and inclusivity–in a way that surveys, media headlines, and false dichotomies will never do.
Kate Lechtenberg earned a doctoral degree from the University of Iowa’s College of Education, where her research focused on how teachers select, frame, and facilitate discussions about controversial issues. She teaches courses in young adult and children’s literature, collection development, and critical literacy at the University of Iowa. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.