The growing necessity to distinguish free speech from hate speech, especially in context of life at the University of Michigan, was the central topic of disccusion at a panel held Tuesday at the University Law School. The panel related this topic in relation to recent events on and outside campus as well as the upcoming visit of controversial figure Charles Murray this Wednesday. The event was co-sponsored by the Law School and the Ford School of Public Policy.
Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director of ACLU Michigan, drew much of his talk from his own work at the ACLU, where he litigates civil liberties issues like free speech. Korobkin cited the First Amendment as a protection to protest an administration, but also highlighted its recent use in protecting the expression of hateful ideologies.
Korobkin claimed the legal protection of what we know as hate speech and protesting is one of the most difficult parts of his job, especially when students later related this to the Charlottesville, Va., protests in which an estimated 80 percent were armed with weaponry.
“They key to me is that the First Amendment actually includes the word ‘peaceably’ in it, which implies to me that if you are planning to have a march for political reasons, but also bring your guns and do it in a way that is designed to intimidate counter-protesters … that’s not what the First Amendment protects,” he said.
Korobkin explored the discourse surrounding the hate speech versus free speech debate. He related the faulty “sticks and stones” ideology and the assumption that hate speech cannot cause any real harm. According to Korobkin, individuals have used hate speech to harm communities, and have done so because it has the power to harm individuals and belittle them.
While a variety of opinions and ideas are important, Korobkin asserted some ideas can be dangerous and have detrimental effects on society, especially if society allows the government to determine what is hate speech; individuals will abuse this power for their own political agendas.
Nevertheless, Korobkin explained the importance of being an ally to minority groups and demanding the University create inclusive public spaces and forums to introduce more previously ignored voices.
“The University doesn’t have to be neutral on these issues," he said. "It can and should be an activist itself."
Panelist Austin McCoy, a postdoctoral fellow and historian, shared his thoughts on protesting and free speech largely as an activist himself. He emphasized the need to prepare strategies ahead of time to effectively combat dangerous political figures and ideas.
McCoy reaffirmed the harm that racist posters can have on students around campus, citing the recent incident outside Stockwell Residence Hall and previous incidents that struck him as especially dangerous because they encouraged reporting undocumented immigrants. He encouraged students to tear down or report these posters, but not report about them online, because this opens an opportunity for online ‘trolls’ to comment and have a platform to continue sharing racist ideas.
According to McCoy, mass action is vital for demanding response from the University to denounce racist acts. He also said while one cannot filter what others can say, in a joint effort people can make it difficult for individuals to express hateful and dangerous opinions.
Law School student Leah Duncan attended the panel to work to process recent events on campus.
“I had a general interest in free speech and how you balance that with protecting students and the community in general, from hate speech and the harms that it causes psychologically and opportunities for education in that nature,” she said.
Law School student Sarvjeet Singh came with fellow international students because they were all interested in learning more about the laws surrounding free speech in the United States.
“Whatever has been happening around the campus and in the country after the election has made it very interesting. Especially coming from our countries and hearing about the American First Amendment and what is a protected part of it, I think the notion of the fact that racist speech can be protected is what brought us here to understand that,” he said.