Pushing the Limits of the First Amendment

Berkeley Law Dean Edwin Chemerinskey gives a lecture on free speech on college campuses.                                     PC: Jaslyn Gilbert

In the words of Berkeley Law Dean Edwin Chemerinskey, “Issues of free speech on college campuses are as old as universities.” With the vast amount of social issues being debated lately, students are wondering now more than ever about what kind of speech is and is not protected by the First Amendment. Should hateful speech be illegal?

According to 40% of college students, Chemerinskey said, the University should reserve the right to restrict hateful speech on campus. However, according to the Constitution, hateful speech is perfectly legal.

In his presentation, Chemerinskey brought up the point that if college campuses were to reject the law and punish students for hateful speech, these speakers would be allowed to make themselves out to be martyrs and simply sue the school for violating their right to free speech. In this way, the speaker is allowed to continue spreading hate and the problem remains unsolved.

Furthermore, Chemerinskey argued that, “We can’t keep students away from speech that makes them feel uncomfortable while also fulfilling our duties as teachers.”

When asked how she feels about this statement, Lauren Hudson, Global Studies ‘21, said that she agreed because, “teachers are supposed to challenge their students’ ideas and if they aren’t allowed to do so, then there isn’t going to be very much personal growth in classrooms.”

When examining the allowance of hateful speech under the First Amendment, it is also important to note the restrictions that are imposed. Such restrictions include the prohibition of: harassment, the use of speech to incite illegal activity, and true threats.

For example, Chemerinskey explained that the use of racial slurs is not prohibited. However, if someone were to say that they wished to physically harm a certain ethnic group, the speech would not be protected by the First Amendment.

When asked how we can apply what we’ve learned from Mr. Chemerinskey’s speech to our everyday lives, Ahmed Othman, Business Law ‘20, said, “I think in general, we just need to be more understanding… Even if you don’t agree with someone, at least listen to their opinion on the subject. It’s okay to disagree.”

Moreover, Chemerinskey went on to say that even the most hateful speakers should not be silenced. After all, who defines what is hateful and what is not? If we attempt to define such subjective terminology, Chemerinskey argued, we may end up silencing the wrong people altogether.

Furthermore, Chemerinskey argued that if speakers were silenced every time others found them offensive, then we would only be allowed to hear speakers who are so dispassionate that nobody cares enough about their opinions to silence them.

With these lessons in mind, it is important to note that it is not necessary to condone or accept hateful speech around us, but rather to simply allow it to occur. It can be difficult to resist the urge to block out disrespectful rhetoric, but proponents of Chemerinskey’s view would challenge students to allow it to occur for the purpose of starting dialogue.

Since hate often stems from ignorance, this line of thinking goes, it is important to explain to hateful speakers why their rhetoric is disrespectful. By attempting to silence hateful speech, bigoted beliefs are allowed to continue, but by using it to start dialogue, opinions can be challenged and minds can be changed.

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Scarlett Green

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