Free speech is fundamental to the health of a college campus, and limiting it in any respect will stunt the dynamic dialogue emblematic of a university environment.
Students should not only feel safe to express their beliefs but also have the opportunity to be exposed to a wide-variety of viewpoints and perspectives without fear.
But this need for an absolute acceptance of free speech was threatened by a policy presented for debate in The GW Law School student senate.
The policy would alert the community if a “hate group,” as labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, would be participating in a campus event. Additional security would also be provided at these flagged events.
The policy was initially proposed by third-year law student Samantha Ames, after she was allegedly verbally assaulted and physically intimidated by the leader of The Family Research Council, an organization that has been branded a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
This policy, while well-intentioned, represents a dangerous attack on free speech and the exchange of ideas at the University.
The bill, of course, would not ban controversial groups. Any group invited would be welcome to speak, as long as they consent to being called a hate group. This is dangerous as the two groups vested with the power to decide who is and isn’t hateful are driven by their own ideological leanings, which interferes with their ability to objectively label others. Because of this, it is more likely that conservative groups will be labeled as hate groups rather than liberal ones. GW might be a left-leaning institution, but its students cannot support a policy that would unfairly mark some conservative groups as hateful while ignoring that groups from across the political spectrum spread hate.
The potential for censorship, diminished dialogue and limited free speech is simply too great to consider.
It is the community’s obligation to provide every student, speaker or organization an equal forum to present their opinions, no matter how controversial or “hateful” their message may be. Support for free speech means support for all speech no matter how vile or hurtful it can be. There are no clauses or qualms when supporting free speech.
The bill will likely never make it past the law school student senate, but its existence could cause some to question the University’s commitment to having a fair and open dialogue, as it is hard to separate administrator initiatives from student culture when evaluating a school.
This reputation would in turn have the effect of dissuading groups that might not be hate groups, yet are considered controversial or outspoken from coming to campus. And this would be extremely detrimental to having an open and honest discourse on campus.
The emotions that arise when these sorts of groups visit are charged and can be incendiary. But labeling an outside group as “hateful” and requiring that it has more security only takes the community’s focus away from what such a group’s visit is about: A constructive dialogue where people can come together and have a difficult but necessary conversation.