Even 'Hate' Speech Should Be Free

DOUGLAS HANN, a junior at Brown University, has the dubious distinction of being the first student expelled from an American college for violating "hate speech" rules.

And when Brown "expelled" him, they consigned him to the status known at Harvard as "expunged"--dismissed without hope of readmission. Pretty harsh treatment from the kinder, gentler university that abolished grades.

Unfortunately, Hann isn't the ideal martyr for the First Amendment cause. His offense consisted of more than just unpopular political opinions--he shouted racist, anti-semitic and anti-gay epithets at a first-year student. Worse yet, he was drunk at the time, giving Brown more solid grounds to indeed treat his as a disciplinary case.

But while such facts make the prospect of defending him unappealing, they don't justify the fact that the university reacted with undue severity. Its decision that Hann was unfit for the university was based on political rather than legitimate disciplinary motives. After all, if every student that got drunk and hollered a bit were expelled for good, Harvard, Yale and Princeton would have to merge for lack of students.

A LOOK at Hann's record shows that the Disciplinary Board has previously attempted to reform him politically as well as punish his delinquency. In 1989 the board found Hann guilty of making a racial epithet to a Black student in a bar, and forced him to attend a race relations workshop in addition to the requisite alcohol abuse counseling. Hann's bigoted attitude could certainly be improved, but it is not the Disciplinary Board's place to do so.


The board, and similar enforcement bodies in other universities, claim that an important part of their disciplinary function is to prevent students from taking actions harmful to others. Under the definitions in the hate speech guidelines, Hann's shouting epithets was clearly considered a harmful action.

BUT WHAT IF, instead of shouting them when drunk, he had expressed similarly prejudiced opinions during a calm discussion? The overtly disruptive style of presentation would be removed, yet many university codes include the expression of such opinions in their definition of harmful action, without specifying the mode of presentation, a dangerous omission.

And how do such rules apply to opinions in a newspaper? A racist editorial involves no offensive behavior, and may be argued coherently. But since the rules take issue with the content of the opinion, the definitions of harrassment and hate speech would have to include offensive editorializing among the forbidden behaviors.

Writing such opinions and uttering them aloud are equally "demeaning" actions" directed against a "group or class of persons" based on their "race, religion...or sexual orientation," according to Brown's regulations.

The emphasis Brown placed on Hann's drunken behavior in explaining its decision to the press, then, serves to obscure the fact that the main charge against him was violation of the hate speech rules, and that his drunkenness was a secondary offense. The real problem is the university's emphasis on a rule that mainly restricts what students say, and not how they say it. The university's primary complaint against him was ideological, and the suppression was a violation of his First Amendment rights.

BUT HANN WAS, after all, an ideal guinea pig on which to test the brand-new hate speech rules: his disorderly conduct supports the university's contention that he is unfit to remain, and his actions are so overtly bigoted that he has no popular support as a martyr. What seems clear is that Brown's Disciplinary Board, in making an example of Hann, punished him harshly because it wanted to prove the school's serious commitment to the hate speech code. The circumstances of his case made them feel they could do this with impunity. A fairer policy would have been to punish Hann only for his rowdiness, not his opinions.

As a Jewish woman, I have no desire to be the target of bigoted epithets. But I also know that dictatorship begins not with name-calling, but consent to the official suppression of the name-callers. They may think I am as offensive and irrational as I think them. This, nevertheless, does not give the university the right to step in and decide which of us is right. Brown's overzealous administration needs to realize that a community that protects freedom of speech cannot be founded on coercion.

Brown wanted to prove its commitment to the hate speech code.

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