Cowan: The University of Oregon’s year in free speech
It’s been an up and down year for free speech at the University of Oregon.
On the one hand, demonstrations have abounded. A march spurred on a moment’s notice on election night and students’ voices rang through the early morning. Students continued to gather for days, and this culminated in the massive women’s march after inauguration day. Interspersed between such mobilizations were demonstrations at Johnson Hall over all sorts of issues.
But there have been shortcomings as well. Nancy Shurtz, who donned ‘well-intended’ blackface at a Halloween party, received campus-wide backlash from students and faculty, and not long after, high school students were found on campus wearing blackface as well. These two instances were reinvigorated after “Genocide Jimmy” and Chad showed up on campus, complete with a swastika-covered van and slur-covered sign.
This event, in particular, occurred in light of several others. First, as the Anti-Defamation League has found, anti-semitic incidents in the United States have grown by 86 percent in just the first quarter of 2017. Similarly, this event arises after UC Berkeley rioted to protest the arrival of Milo Yiannopoulos and filed a lawsuit to attempt to prevent conservative pundit Ann Coulter from speaking at the school. Both of these events find themselves dueling with an old, controversial foe: the First Amendment.
For many Americans, the First Amendment is held religiously: when faced with the demons of censorship, violence and suppression, they pray to their sacred parchment and freedom descends from above. But the First Amendment is a difficult line to toe due to the fact that it cannot be inclusive or exclusory in any regard — everyone gets the same blanket deal.
The white nationalist incident is a prime example. While students may have felt the presence of such hate speech to be toxic and necessitate a forced removal, no such action is possible without also forcing April’s LGBTQA3 protesters at Johnson Hall to be removed. While drawn around severely different circumstances, protecting the right to protest of one group simultaneously protects the right of the other — no exceptions. Any attempt to favor one group over another paves the way for favoritism to occur, only in the reverse circumstances.
In this regard, “the confusion is that in placing limits on speech we privilege physical over emotional harm,” wrote Thane Rosenbuam, a fellow at New York University, in a 2014 essay.
Indeed, the First Amendment — as it currently stands and has been interpreted historically — has bent toward the acceptance that if there is no physical harm involved, it isn’t in violation of the First Amendment (except, of course, in the cases of slander and libel). But as Rosenbaum explains, the act of speech — more specifically, anyone’s definition of ‘hate speech’ — can oftentimes present unmitigated emotional damage and trauma.
This is once again illustrated by the University of Oregon’s fiasco with Nancy Shurtz. Shurtz, who donned blackface at a private Halloween party last year, received attention from students, the media and the administration, who in an email to the student population, deemed “…that her actions had a negative impact on the university’s learning environment and constituted harassment under the UO’s anti discrimination policies.”
The campus community garnered 1,200 signatures on a petition for Shurtz’s resignation and the university subsequently put Shurtz on paid leave, leading FIRE to mark UO as one of the worst campuses in the country for free speech. Yet white nationalists (or neo-nazis) arrived on campus with a racial slur and a swastika and the administration has been silent on the subject. In one instance, the university’s hands are tied regarding a white supremacist message peacefully protesting on campus, while in another, they deemed Nancy Shurtz’s free actions as inadmissible and damaging to the “university’s learning environment.”
It would appear that the university itself had a difficult time acknowledging the social trauma of traditionally destructive speech and, simultaneously, understanding how to intervene in — or acknowledge — the presence of ill-intentioned white supremacy.
The simple fact of the matter is that Shurtz’s punishment was, to some, a deliberate encroachment of free speech, no matter how “hateful.” It is, however, protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. If that doesn’t sit well, that’s perhaps because the constitution itself doesn’t acknowledge social and emotional trauma through such use of free speech.
Rosenbaum cites countries like Israel and France, which in law ban the use of Nazi paraphernalia or speech, as examples of countries without an immutable blanket on free speech.
“To Americans, these actions in France and Israel seem positively undemocratic,” Rosenbaum writes.
It’s this line of thought that has halted the United States’ action on free speech for centuries. The motivation today for halting such nationalist demonstrations as Jimmy and Chad’s have been used historically to try and halt the speech of the Civil Rights Movement — then seen as hate speech toward white southerners. In the face of free speech, making exceptions for one group always seems to produce an opportunity for regretful repercussions.
But as students gathered, a protest formed and a rabbi danced, leading Jimmy and Chad to leave campus. Shurtz, even without an administrative intervention, received severe backlash for her actions. In these instances, the social trauma swelled back in a wave of intolerance for such ideas. The social high ground was captured by the majority.
Is this meant to be the purpose of free speech? For the morally upright ideals to outlive the hateful ones because of a lack of legal restriction?
The answer to those questions is to tolerate such hateful speech and actions, if not socially then at the bare minimum legally. The administration did not address the event with force as it did with Nancy Shurtz because the power of free speech condones the demonstration (although it does lead to questionable leadership in situations such as Shurtz’s). But as students feel the social and emotional trauma of such actions, perhaps it’s time to realize that the First Amendment is good at doing its job. And perhaps that’s precisely the problem.
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