If I hear one more person walk around this school screaming about their first amendment right to say whatever they want, I’m going to lose it. Or, rather, call and ask their Civics and AP Government teachers to come stage an intervention, because clearly someone did not understand that whole Constitution thing.
Seriously. Stop with the freedom of speech.
If now is the point in my article in which you’ve flipped a table, wildly gesticulating your uncontrollable anger that I would dare insult your “first amendment right” (ironic, no?), please sit back down. Yes, bravo, you have indeed identified that the first amendment to our Constitution prevents Congress from making laws “abridging the freedom of speech.” But, to borrow from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The first amendment’s protection of freedom of speech is a protection from–and that’s the key distinction here–the government. For instance, if you want to stand on a street corner and scream claims that the homosexuals are taking over the country (e.g. the Westboro Baptist Church), the police cannot come and arrest you. If you want to post about your hatred of women online, the government can’t come for you. If you want to publish a book full of racial epithets detailing your dreams for a white America, the police can’t get you then either. The common thread in all this?The government cannot sanction you for speech that it simply doesn’t like, no matter how horrific or hateful that speech is.
However, the rest of us non-government people in this country are under no obligation to protect your speech. I am not compelled to protect your bigotry. I am more than free to organize a counter-protest and drown out what I think is sick, hateful, ridiculous, and absurd speech, and the government cannot compel me to allow you to be heard nor restrict my ability to respond to your vitriol. Similarly, no publishing company is under the obligation to publish your racist manifesto. No private firm is constitutionally compelled to hire you. And no private university is constitutionally obligated to protect or sanction your speech either.
Duke is a private university, meaning that Duke is not funded by state taxpayer dollars. The University of North Carolina is largely funded through the N.C. legislature, so it is a public university. Since public universities are paid for through taxpayer dollars and are overseen by state legislatures, they are considered extensions of the government. As a result, public universities are indeed obligated to protect students’ first amendment right to freedom of speech.
As a private university, however, Duke is not under that same obligation. Duke can establish whatever rules and norms it chooses and sanction students accordingly. Private universities establish norms all the time that would be unacceptable at public universities, and that most would see as a violation of the freedom of speech should the first amendment apply there (which it doesn’t). For instance, Brigham Young University expelled a student in 2011 for having premarital sex, a breach of the university’s honor code. At Bob Jones University, skipping Bible Study or forgetting to shave your hair gets you a conduct warning. Watching pornography or engaging in “sensual behavior” gets you suspended or expelled.
I’m by no means advocating that Duke start expelling students for “sensual behavior,” largely because that means Duke would probably have about ten students left. My point is that private universities are able to establish whatever kind of community rules they so choose, and that by choosing to come to Duke, we are agreeing to Duke’s rules. Your decision not to uphold the Duke Community Standard does not mean that the Navy should send in the SEALS to prevent you from being suspended or expelled. You have no first amendment right to freedom of speech at Duke because Duke is not the government.
Now, many esteemed universities have decided that as a matter of ethics, they will work to promote the freedom of speech on campus, but as a philosophical notion and not a legal one. Duke has long been committed to principles of freedom of intellectual expression. But Duke should also be committed to ensuring the safety of students on campus.
A string of recent campus incidences–from the hanging of a noose, to racial epithets scrawled on signs, to homophobic death threats, to prominent faculty members voicing racist opinions, to students holding racist parties–has forced many more members of our university community to finally start paying attention to the issues that marginalized people, especially people of color, have faced for years. I highly recommend reading–with an open mind–the demands that a group of students recently presented to the University’s Administration.
We can have discussions about the freedom of intellectual expression, and we can have discussions about the need to protect students from hate speech. But none of these important discussions can happen when students walk around with an indignant notion that their “first amendment right” protects their ability to say whatever they want in Duke’s hallowed halls with no consequences. You can argue that Duke shouldn't sanction you for your speech, no matter how much violence it inflicts upon your peers, but you can’t claim that Duke is constitutionally obligated to protect your speech. If Duke were to impose sanctions for certain speech on campus, which I wholeheartedly endorse, Duke isn’t violating your rights at all. Duke is establishing what it means to participate and commit to a higher form of intellectual dialogue and a community built upon inclusivity.
So to the anonymous yakker who ever so eloquently stated, “Shoutout to first amendment right and freedom of speech, to the dumb ppl who think racist speech isn’t covered by freedom of speech, anything that is words is included by freedom of speech, so…f*** u,” I say this:
Dana Raphael is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.