On March 28th 2019, the American University School of Education and PEN America hosted the 2019 Global Education Forum, Hate Comes to Campus. Co-sponsored by the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right and Rantt Media, the forum brought together experts and students for an afternoon of discussion on the topics of free speech, campus politics, and the ongoing danger of far-right movements globally.
The first of the forum’s two panels was chaired by Jonathan Friedman, project director for campus free speech at PEN America. Friedman was joined by Dr. Ibrahim X. Kendi (American University), Dr. Lara Schwartz (American University), and Dr. Shannon Gilreath (Wake Forest University) in a discussion that sought to re-think the meaning of free speech; both on campus and in the wider U.S. political discourse.
The four scholars analyzed and debated freedom of speech over the course of an hour and half. The group discussed the oftentimes complex web of legal writ, normative standards, and principles of justice that comprise the theory and practice of free speech in the United States. Untangling these threads is a challenge for any discussion on this topic. And rather than attempt to reach a definite conclusion, the panel’s scholars instead sought to elaborate methods for asking better questions.
In this spirit, Dr. Kendi offered the point that American jurisprudence does not adequately weigh the difference between truth or falsehood in inflammatory political and racial rhetoric. Racist speech, Kendi argued, being both false and intended to damage racial minorities, is better described as “unfree speech”—intended to rob its targets of their own freedom. Restrictions on this “unfree” speech, which is often racially libelous and defamatory, is effectively non-existent. And so, Kendi suggested, U.S. law cannot practically reckon with the moral and justicial claims against it.
Dr. Gilreath emphasized the need to distinguish between speech that merely offends and that which “effectuates citizenship injury.” For example, Gilreath argued, given what is known of suicide rates among LGBTQIA teens, speech which denigrates sexual minorities constitutes an unmediated harm against them. Such speech might not deserve protection under the law. However, Gilreath cautioned, it is crucial to account for normative context, in order to evaluate the extent to which speech is merely offensive, or in-itself harmful – stressing that the circumstances are important when substantiating if such an injury has been committed.
Dr. Schwartz cautioned that discourse surrounding hate speech can be misleading, since it has the potential to confuse such distinctions as those drawn by Drs. Kendi and Gilreath. Hateful or inflammatory speech needn’t necessarily be false, nor must it always be the cause of unmediated injury. She reminded the panel and audience that as a matter of legal practice, judgements as to the truth or damage of a speech act will tend to be made not by those in the affected, marginalized group, but by representatives of dominant racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, and class groups – placing an onus on these dominant groups in calling out hate speech.
To the extent that the panel reached a general consensus, it was this: that public discourse pertaining to free speech in the United States—and on college campuses in particular—does not reckon with the complexities of the topic. Too often, speech is discussed either as a procedural matter of pure law, or in overly abstract idealizations that do not account for the lived experiences of those whom hateful speech targets.
The second panel of the evening was hosted by Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, professor of education and sociology at American University and CARR senior fellow. She was joined by CARR Director Dr. Matthew Feldman, scholar and former Menlo College provost Dr. Terri E. Givens, and CARR Associate Director, Dr. William Allchorn. This panel discussed the issue of international far right, how scholars and the media might work together to better educate the public as to its dangers, and how policies against far-right extremism might be implemented at the local level.
Dr. Feldman and Dr. Miller-Idriss concurred that one of the most striking developments to the problem of far-right radicalism is its influence on mainstream right-wing politics. Dr. Feldman pointed out that the “cordon sanitaire,” which once kept radical right ideas out of the media and mainstream discourse, has been thoroughly breached in recent years. Dr. Miller-Idriss agreed, stating further that not only has the extreme “gone mainstream”—now the mainstream is itself in the process of “going extreme.” This has presented numerous challenges for the press, who must report on these movements and ideas without acting as mouthpieces for extremism. The panel concurred that it is necessary to continue working with journalists to provide context for their stories. Likewise, it is crucial that the network of cooperating scholars expand, so as to better incorporate the expertise of women, minorities, and others “outside the usual suspects.”
Scholars who assume this responsibility for educating the public face harassment, threats, and sometimes worse. As a former administrator, Dr. Givens offered her perspective on how academic institutions can act to support scholars studying risky and controversial topics. She emphasized first the importance of moral support from University administrators on behalf of scholars facing harassment from extremist activist communities. Givens explained that this moral support should also be matched with practical support, in the form of education on information security, mental health, and best safety practices. Administrators themselves are in need of ongoing development in how best to serve faculty engaging with this ever-emerging issue.
Finally, the panel addressed the dilemma of how to combat the international far-right when all too often governments cannot even agree upon definitions of extremism. Dr. William Allchorn described the need for local approaches to the problem. Since the far-right thrives on social division, programs promoting community connection and understanding may be the most effective remedy. However, local “bubbles of permissiveness” need to be broken through, so that the full weight of the problem can be appreciated by officials and the community. Good communication among practitioners and researchers is key to spreading successful approaches to such programs among communities and across national boundaries.
The importance of communication among researchers, between researchers and the public, and within institutions of higher learning, was a theme that ran throughout the Hate Comes to Campus event. Events like the 2019 Global Education Forum are a key component of this project, bringing together all of these stakeholders for an intensive, animated, and ultimately encouraging free exchange of ideas and experiences. As these challenges continue to unfold, these brief but in-depth exchanges promise to build that crucial network of mutual collaboration and support to meet the pressing problems of hate on campus and beyond.
Mr Brian Hughes is an Early Career Research Fellow at CARR and Doctoral candidate at the School of Communication, American University. His profile can be found here:
© Brian Hughes. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).