In light of chalking on Diag, event explores definition of hate speech
About a dozen members of the University of Michigan’s Michigan Political Union — a student-run organization that aims to create a space for students on campus to discuss political issues — gathered Tuesday night at the Michigan Union for their final debate of the semester.
Members discussed a wide array of topics, including issues of free speech, student diversity and bipartisanship, as well as responded to questions from attendees.
LSA freshman Liam Stewart, member of the Michigan Political Union, touched on issues of unregulated free speech in his comments at the event. He said his remarks were motivated by a personal encounter from earlier that day, when he passed a group of four individuals protesting on campus against what they characterized as racist hate speech.
“The gist of their belief is that people who spout racist hate speech should not be protected, they shouldn’t have the right to free speech, the University should sanction against them and oppose their right to speech,” Stewart said. “That people who wrote things like last week the ‘Stop Islam’ posts … should be expelled from campus.”
Last Wednesday, a number of religiously- and politically-driven statements were written in chalk on the Diag, including phrases such as “#Stop Islam,” “Trump 2016” and “Build the Wall.” The statements sparked at least one call to University Police and an effort by students to wash the phrases away.
In response to the incident, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald emphasized the balance between free speech and inclusion on campus.
“We all understand that where speech is free it will sometimes wound,” he said. “But our message is this: We are fully committed to fostering an environment that is welcoming and inclusive of everyone. Tonight we are reminded there is much work yet to be done.”
Stewart largely based his remarks on the protesters, who he said were calling for the University to take disciplinary action against students who spread hate speech, such as the messages written on the Diag, and asking students to sign a petition to that effect. Though emphasizing that the statements written on the Diag Wednesday were “awful and Islamophobic,” he said expelling students for such an offense would set a dangerous precedent for limiting free speech.
“We all just have an opinion that we want to voice and that’s an important part of democracy,” Stewart said. “The second you start silencing people, you make a move toward an authoritarian government, and it’s not anybody’s right to decide who does and does not get silenced.”
He added that he disagreed with the idea that violence results from hate speech, noting that if someone were explicitly to make a call to violence, then free speech protections already would not apply.
“My primary concern is that we end up in a society where the government can step in and say, ‘Hey this could potentially lead to unrest and thus you’re not allowed to say it,’ ” Stewart said.
Students also discussed the issue of diversity on campus. LSA junior Joshua Strup, president of the Michigan Political Union, acknowledged the University has broadly encouraged the idea of diversity, but added that he thinks the institution is strict in its definition of it. He said he would like to see the University attract more student veterans on campus.
“We have long since promoted the idea of diversity, but it appears they don’t want to be diverse in their diversity,” Strup said. “That they want to focus on race and gender… they don’t want to encourage diversity of thought. Whereas veterans can bring this in.”
Currently, roughly 1.5 percent of the University’s student population are veterans, compared to 3 percent of the overall United States population.
Strup, who is a veteran, emphasized the University is veteran-friendly upon arrival. However, he also said it’s important just for service members to know the University is an option after separating from the service and entering the civilian world.
“I do not ask for special entrance requirements or any type of affirmative action program on behalf of veterans,” Strup said. “What I would like to see the University of Michigan do is take part of its recruiting budget and make sure the University has a presence through materials at the different transition points on air bases, army posts, marine camps and naval ports.”