There's been a hate speech controversy raging for the past few months at
Syracuse University, where I perform my day job in order to support my
secret life as a columnist. It's made me wonder whether Americans -- big
fans of exporting democracy elsewhere -- really understand what the word
To wit, last October a student-run television station was busted for airing
a series of programs that joked about lynching black men on the campus
quad, raping female students, and other unfunny business that you'd think
the "greatest democracy ever" might disdain.
Predictably, students from the targeted groups felt intimidated and
harassed by the broadcasts; some decided to transfer to more welcoming
environs. All decent people, on campus and off, were appalled by the show's
shameful tastelessness and hostility.
SU Chancellor Nancy Cantor, who some readers might remember as the
University of Illinois's former leader who took so much grief for standing
strong against Chief Illiniwek a couple of years back, appropriately
suspended the station for violating the code of student conduct which
expressly forbids hate speech in such venues.
Yep: more grief.
In the campus newspaper alone, the outcry against her action was relentless
and hyperbolic. A political science student compared the controversy to the
1979 Robert Faurisson holocaust denial affair in France. A communications
major likened Cantor to an "Iranian mullah." Even some journalism
professors suggested that the administration's "refereeing the content of
student speech" endangered "democratic society." And that's really just
scratching the surface.
Now, I've never been one to condemn the fine art of exaggeration -- in
fact, I probably do it myself a million times a day -- but even Chicken
Little would likely admit that prohibiting racist and sexist speech on a
university campus is no sign of democracy's death or the end of free
To the contrary, hate speech policies actually support both.
Free speech was a concept invented by democracies -- totalitarian societies
have no use for it -- and democracies are defined by the ambitious notion
that the people rule. Not just majorities or powerful special interest
groups: the people. In this context, the purpose of free speech is to
ensure the proliferation of discourses that might otherwise be banned for
their unpopularity or lack of numbers, like minority speech.
Free speech thus exists to produce a very specific outcome: namely, the
widest possible diversity of voices and viewpoints in the pluralistic
public square. It's not meant to protect every possible word one might be
tempted to blurt out -- say, in a crowded movie theater -- simply because
not all expressions are given equal weight in our world.
American courts have treated free speech as a generative principle rather
than something that actually exists for itself because they recognize that
the concept is meant to produce other social goods, like scientific
knowledge, political dissent or other forms of discourse valuable to the
"marketplace of ideas." The point is to protect democracy by safeguarding
speech that positively contributes to it.
The courts have restricted speech when it produces actions that democratic
societies do not value, for instance "fighting words," which 1942's
Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire defined as language "likely to provoke the
average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach to the peace."
Or, to use a more recent and tragic example, saying that you have a bomb in
your backpack while running from an airplane.
Like fighting words or terroristic threats, hate speech produces effects
democratic society does not value, namely the exclusion or intimidation of
social groups. When minority groups are targeted by hate speech, they are
not merely angered or offended but marginalized and excluded.
So banning hate speech on campus makes good sense from the perspective of
democracy. It ensures that students from minority groups feel as welcomed
as possible to express their thoughts and contribute to democratic culture
-- thereby promoting, not preventing, free speech in the long run.
Such policies should not, of course, stifle social critique or satire,
which are discourses that have long been valued by both democratic
societies and universities. The offending programming at SU was
characterized by its producers as "satirical" in the vein of Jon Stewart
and Dave Chappell. Was it?
No. According to Robert Harris's "Glossary of Literary Terms," satire is "a
manner of writing that mixes a critical attitude with wit and humor in an
effort to improve mankind and human institutions." Its goal is to "point
out the hypocrisy" of people who act in opposition to an "implicit moral
code." In other words, the intended target of satire is by definition folks
who pay lip service to morality but act otherwise.
Doing satire well means using society's professed moral code as the
standard for judgment. So what's our moral code? It is uncontroversial to
claim that our society is morally opposed to lynching, rape, racism and
sexism. These are not simply loathsome opinions but practices and values
completely at odds with our basic morality.
The last thing the SU jokesters did on their programs was satirize immoral
hypocrites in an effort to improve their institution. What they did was
challenge society's moral code, presenting us with another one we might
characterize as white supremacy or patriarchy.
That's not satire. It's reaction.
Ironically, in so doing they actually set themselves up as potential
targets of real satire, the kind Stewart and Chappell do, since they
professed morality -- oh yes, they were completely against racism and
sexism, as everyone was repeatedly told -- but certainly acted otherwise on
Neither satire nor free speech is on the hot seat at SU right now. It's our
basic moral code. And not only at SU, so watch your back.
To the extent that we believe our extant morality worth defending, we
should be grateful for the kind of principled leadership exhibited by
Cantor and encourage other university leaders to follow her strong, moral
To the extent that we value democracy, Americans should consider
revisiting, and explicitly teaching, basic democratic principles like free
speech at all levels of education, lest our pluralistic society forgets
what they were intended to accomplish in the first place.
Scott Richard Lyons, Leech Lake Ojibwe, teaches writing, literature and
Native American studies at Syracuse University.