This article has been edited slightly from its original version to correct the title of a source.
The Orton Center is a multipurpose building located on the University of Redlands’ campus that’s held numerous events varying from campus dances to spiritual dinners that have been practiced for generations. At 7:30 on Nov. 30, the Orton Center opened its doors to KPCC, Southern California’s National Public Radio (NPR) branch, who hosted an open discussion about the importance of free speech and hate speech on college campuses. As the audience members took their seats, the brightly lit stage drew forth everyone’s attention. Soon, the building’s lights dimmed to signal the beginning of the event. With the audience’s chatter coming to an end, KPCC’s Adolfo Guzman-Lopez suddenly came into view and introduced the four panelists who were to speak about this controversial political discussion. The following Panelists took the stage:
Kamal Bilal: Current President of the Associated Students of the University of Redlands (ASUR)
Ari Cohn: Director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)
Marcela Ramirez: U.C Riverside Free Speech candidate and recent U.C. Student Regent
Andrew Wall: The Dean University of Redlands School of Education
Lopez kicked off the discussion by asking the participants to define ‘free speech’ and ‘hate speech’ in their own words.
“Free speech is an American right. I believe everybody has a right to their own opinion and should be able to freely express them,” Bilal said.
Bilal also commented that he is still trying to wrap his head around “hate speech” and how it differs from an insult or offensive comment.
Cohn answered next, saying that although many think of the First Amendment when the topic of free speech, he believes that “free speech is an ideal that goes back in history long predating even the United States.”
“None of us have all the right answers and we might be wrong on some, many, or even all things,” Cohn continued.
“The values of Free Speech are far broader than the First Amendment itself,” Cohn said. Regarding hate speech, Cohn stated that it is almost impossible to define. “What might be hateful to one person might be mere criticism to another,” he said.
“To me, Free Speech is the ability to talk about my truths, my existence, the ways in which I live the world, the ways in which I perceive the world,” Ramirez said next.
When asked about hate speech, Ramirez said she views the fine line where people are treating others with violence.
“The complicated piece around hate speech is not just the hateful nature of it, but really when it becomes violent,” Ramirez said. “Or when it becomes an attack, a physical attack on someone else’s livelihood.”
Wall was the final panelist to define free speech and hate speech in his own words. He complimented his fellow panelists on their remarks before discussing how both types of speech affect the realm of the college campus specifically.
“The college campus offers a particular environment where actually being on a campus and the place where ideas are supposed to take shape will serve to shape minds and the being of people,” Wall said. “We have a special responsibility to help define a speech that is both free and civil.”
Cohn interjected with a rebuttal.
“Uncivil speech can be singularly effective in conveying a speaker’s emotions, in conveying the importance of an issue,” he said.
Cohn gave an example of a Supreme Court case where college students staged an anti-terrorism demonstration by stamping on a flag with Arabic print. When they were sued, the court voted in favor of the students.
“There has to be room for an amount of instability in our civil dialogue because that is often the most passionate and the most perhaps inspiring of speech,” Cohn said.
After Cohn’s quick interjection, Lopez then asked Wall if he thought there “is there room for instability on a college campus?” To which he replied “That depends on your definition of stability.”
Elaborating, Wall explained that there are ways to evoke tremendous amounts of emotion while still remaining respectful.
Lopez then asked Bilal about his four years of experience at University of Redlands and if he has witnessed any “heightened instability.”
“At the University of Redlands, our students are pretty civil,”Bilal said.
He further explained that in his opinion, if someone intentionally hurts another person, be it physically or emotionally, they are not doing a good job of representing their argument.
Lopez called for a legal definition of free speech. He asked the university’s General Counsel, Brent Geraty, who was in the audience, to define free speech in legal terms.
“All speech is protected unless it’s been excluded [by the Constitution],” Geraty said. He continued to give three examples of how speech can be excluded from protection by the Constitution: profanity or lewd language, defamation, and fighting words.
But what about the concept of hate speech? Is it excluded from protection?
“In general, hate speech is protected speech. So you can engage in hate speech and it’s not unlawful,” Geraty said with his three examples in mind.
However, he clarified that there are ways hate speech can become unlawful. If an individual is in imminent danger which in this context is an intent to incite unlawful actions and the likelihood that unlawful action will take place.
The Discussion in Orton Center regarding free speech and hate speech attracted numerous community members and students from across the City of Redlands and beyond. With numerous points of views, debates, and contrasting definitions on the subject, the panel initiated an important conversation which colleges across the nation now have the responsibility to join.