See the Stripes Wants Defamatory Speech Prosecuted: A Reminder that Free Speech is Moral -Alexander Cullen

“Additionally, we want a public commitment from the Clemson University Administration to prosecute criminally predatory behaviors and defamatory speech committed by members of the Clemson University community (including, but not limited to, those facilitated by usage of social media)”

– “List of Student Demands” from See the Stripes’ Website

The website is old, and the list of demands posted to See the Stripes’(STS’s) website dates to  before the “Sikes Sit In” over a year ago. The other demands include incentivized diversity training, the designation of a safe space for underrepresented groups, and additional funding for said groups. See the Stripes doesn’t believe their demands to be product of entitlement to resources, but as rightful compensation for the disadvantages certain groups and students find themselves suffering from at Clemson. However, the demand for the punishment of defamatory speech stands apart from the rest.

Defamatory speech denotes speech that might damage the reputation or misrepresent a group or individual. For See the Stipes this includes any speech which is perceived as harmful or offensive to groups whom have historically suffered from discrimination at Clemson. Racist posts on Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app, were cited as examples of such speech. This demand was listed with no intent to make amends for historical injustices like the others, but instead to institute a moral rule. It was a call for the University to participate in and prevent these injustices, with the force of expulsion if necessary.

Of course, the first amendment protects said speech, and the implementation of such a policy would quickly land the University in a lawsuit they would be destined to lose. This should not satisfy us in answering the question of why this demand is a poor idea. The existing rules in place are not justification for those very same rules; to understand why we have the right to express even defamatory speech, we must understand the moral argument for free expression.

For See the Stripes, and the multitudes of other groups that would enjoy seeing hate speech prosecuted, a moral argument exists too. Negative and harmful stereotypes exist around the groups that these students belong to. Exploitation of these stereotypes through offensive or intimidating speech would be immoral by the fact that these comments would utilize bigoted social perceptions and ultimately reinforce an environment featuring racism or bigotry. The First amendment does protect “hate” speech, but that itself isn’t a moral argument defending it.

A moral understanding of the First Amendment relies on a classical understanding between the separation of government and society. After all, the philosophical premise on which the United States was founded was one of personal liberty. A society where offensive speech is protected additionally creates the space for the advocating of ideas that are moral, but not yet accepted. Imagine a society in which our current version of morality was inscribed into law. The social changes which need to occur over the next decade would be unrecognizable to society. Even worse, this society would deny us our fundamental freedom to exist separately or think differently from moral majority.

Legal protection should never be interpreted as approval. The ability of racists to preach misconceived views on racial science and superiority has gone on uninhibited by government. What has allowed for the massive progression away from harmful ideas is the freedom for society to grapple with such issues. If you force defamatory speech underground, you not only damage those who voice moral but unaccepted views, but also impair the process of societal confrontation with bigotry. Believing racism is immoral and shouldn’t have a place in civil society doesn’t necessitate making it illegal. Racist or offensive speech can be some of the worst demonstrations of immoral acts, but that doesn’t equate shutting down or prohibiting that speech as a moral response. Frederic Bastiat said, “Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.” Believing that authoritative responses to unethical speech  are necessary demonstrates the failure to realize that our advances in society have been driven by impassioned individuals who spoke out against the rules.


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