Donald J. Trump’s win upset many college students across the nation, leading to classes being called off, students walking out of their classes in protest and colleges creating more safe spaces. Fortunately, College of Charleston did not follow the trend of coddling students or intolerance towards differing views. Despite that the college would be rated by FIRE as “red light” based on their policy review, which means the school has at least one policy that is not in line with the First Amendment, the College maintained itself as a place of higher learning, where students freely exchange their ideas regardless of how controversial they may be.
No incidents of suppressed speech took place on campus until November 15th, when Glenn F. McConnell, the President of the College, emailed students and faculty members reminding them that in the aftermath of the elections, “it is our duty as Americans and members of the College of Charleston to treat each other with kindness and empathy. No matter the political divide, we must always be tolerant of each other’s views.” However, he added, “Hateful speech and actions will not be tolerated at the College.” The issue here is how vague the term “hateful speech” is, since it holds a subjective meaning. Further, much of what people consider “hateful speech” is generally protected.
Public universities, which includes the College of Charleston, must abide by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects free speech that includes, “certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages, according to Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971). For example, messages like “Trump 2016” that were written in chalk on Emory University’s campus were viewed as “hateful speech” by some students, but regardless of how they feel about it, the chalk message is protected under the First Amendment. Universities should only intervene when speech is a form of harassment, or “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”
Although I commend President McConnell for reminding students “to treat each other with kindness and empathy” and “always be tolerant of each other’s views,” he had it wrong when he said “hateful speech” should not be tolerated, especially when the term is too broad and can easily label an expression that is not “hateful” in nature. To advance free speech on campus, we must embrace all ideas and viewpoints, even those that are controversial. It is the diversity in thought that will mold students to become mature intellectuals that are well prepared for the real world after graduation.
Even at the height of the political unrest that stems from the elections, the College has always maintained a culture that invites ideas from all spectrums and allows students to engage in free expression through classroom discussions and civil discourse with fellow peers. Let us replace our notion of “hateful speech,” which is too subjective and broad, with a principled commitment to “freedom of expression.”