Rethink Hate Speech Rules


DOUGLAS HANN, a junior at Brown, stood outside a dormitory in the middle of the night last fall and showered a first-year student with epithets like "fucking faggot" and "fucking Jew"--insults that Brown's Undergraduate Disciplinary Council didn't like. So two weeks ago the council expelled him.

Such a measure constitutes not only a dangerous infringement on free speech but also an ineffective way of combatting discrimination against Blacks, Jews and homosexuals--the groups which Hann reportedly slammed in his drunken tirade.

Under a "hate speech" rule adopted in 1989, members of the Brown community cannot subject "another person, group or class of persons to inappropriate, abusive, threatening or demeaning actions based on race, religion, gender, handicap, ethnicity, national origin or sexual orientation." It was this rule that provided the grounds for the Disciplinary Council's decision. With similarly vague policies at Harvard and other campuses around the country, the premises behind bans on abusive speech need to be examined.

Universities should adhere to the same standards of speech as the rest of society--those defined by the First Amendment. Unfortunately, hate speech policies like the one at Brown broaden the constitutional definition of "fighting words" and narrow the definition of protected "speech."

FURTHERMORE, hate speech regulations are poor instruments for solving the problem of discrimination on college campuses and in society. Universities have a responsibility to try to prepare students for life in a multicultural society. But efforts against discrimination must go beyond the institutional response.


The most important response to words like Hann's is the one expressed by his fellow students. If we show our disapproval of racial or ethnic slurs, people like Hann will get the picture. If we indicate in ordinary conversations--at parties, in dining halls, in classes--that such epithets are offensive, ridiculous and socially unacceptable, a stigma will become attached to the offenders, and the epithets will begin to disappear. If we indifferently let obnoxious comments slide by, however, we are acting as an accomplice to bigotry. It is our indifference that allows the discrimination to spread.

As we look back on AWARE (Actively Working Against Racism and Ethnocentrism) Week, we should heed the call to educate one another about diversity and fight prejudice on a daily basis. "Demeaning" remarks based on racial and ethnic bias should be questioned, strongly challenged and exposed for their absurdity. With such vigilance, hate speech rules will be unnecessary.

IN LIGHT OF the Hann incident and indications from Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 that the same incident at Harvard might produce the same result, Harvard's policy must be reexamined. Undoubtedly, certain kinds of speech should be frowned upon, but no constitutionally protected speech should be outlawed.

Harvard students are strong enough to survive a little name-calling. We don't need the administration to point out bigotry and mindless epithets. And we are conscious enough to understand that equality and harmony are ideals worth fighting for.

University administrations need not worry about protecting us from verbally abusing each other. We can take care of ourselves. Regardless of the danger of sticks and stones, free speech will never hurt us.