Law students spar over hate speech proposal

The GW Law School’s student senate will consider pulling its support next week for a policy proposal that would call out guest speakers for “hate speech.”

Seven law students and faculty members pitched a policy in March that would alert event-goers before “hate groups” come to campus – as defined by civil rights organizations – and call for increased security at these events. While the Student Bar Association Senate endorsed the policy at a March 19 meeting, it has since stalled.

Mike Johnson, a third-year law student and SBA senator, plans to ask for the retraction of senate’s declared support of the policy at its April 10 meeting. Johnson did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday evening.

Third-year law student Samantha Ames proposed the policy following a scuffle of words after a Feb. 29 law school panel event on marriage equality that included representatives from the Family Research Council – labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for being anti-gay.

Ames noted in a letter in the law school’s student newspaper, The Nota Bene, that she was alledgedly verbally harassed and physically intimidated by senior FRC fellow Peter Sprigg after the event for expressing her support for gay rights during the forum.

Sprigg said, while they disagreed on homosexuality, “my conversation with Ms. Ames, in an open area with many other students around, was entirely civil, and no reasonable observer could have concluded otherwise.”

For the policy to move forward, a faculty committee ultimately has to sign off on the proposal after the SBA sends it to the dean.

Law School Dean Paul Schiff Berman did not take a stance on the issue and urged further discussion, adding that he did not know which way the faculty leaned.

“I think it’s useful for students to engage in difficult debates about how best to balance core values of freedom of speech and open intellectual academic discourse with the desire to maintain an academic environment where diverse perspectives are welcomed and all members of the community feel included,” Berman said.

Ira Lupu, a constitutional law scholar and the F. Elwood and Eleanor David Professor of Law, said he would be “shocked if faculty approved the proposal as it stands” because its hate group label is decided by the civil rights organizations Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, which he said have political motives.

“I think there will be overwhelming opposition to the proposition,” Lupu said. “In a free society, we don’t try to exclude people for being insulting or hateful.”

Chris Wassman, public relations chair for the GW College Republicans, said his organization created its own Facebook group – currently at 37 members – to oppose any future action regarding the proposal.

“The point on our end is to give students a way to state that they believe in maintaining the ability for a diversity of viewpoints to be shared on campus,” Wassman said.

Ames said she has listened to ideas to improve the policy and expects the two sides to bridge the gap through further debate this summer and fall.

“There tends to be a knee-jerk reaction against any policy having to do with speech, but the more people find out about what this really does and where it came from, the easier it is to see how reasonable the proposal really is,” Ames said. “What we came up with is the best way we could find to protect student safety without infringing on free speech.”

Incoming SBA president Michael Lueptow said he would look toward student opinion polls and open forums to weigh the policy’s merit.

This post was updated on April 5, 2012 to reflect the following:
The Hatchet characterized SBA president Nicholas Nikic as wary of the proposal because the debate it caused. In fact, Nikic was not expressing his opinion and was discussing the debate.

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