People’s State of the University Demand #9: Create and enforce a standardized set of consequences for acts of hate and bias on campus.

Last month, the failure of Duke administrators to punish a student for posting racial epithets to his Snapchat story was viewed by many as another example of deliberate inaction that enables racist hate on campus. The subsequent statement from Larry Moneta, vice president of student affairs, that “the language itself may not be in violation of any Duke policies on speech and expression” reinforced concerns over institutional racism and strengthened calls from student leaders to “create and enforce a standardized set of consequences for acts of hate and bias on campus.” 

While the desire to eliminate bigoted and intolerant viewpoints from campus is admirable, the more recent actions of Larry Moneta, which led to firing of two baristas over their choice of music, should give us pause as to whether creating formal punishments for speech, even when that speech is hateful, is the best way to achieve social change. 

At the People’s State of the University, student protestors demanded that a clear definition of what constitutes hate and bias be added to the Duke Community Standard. This task, however, may prove easier said than done. How does one distinguish between acts that are offensive and acts that convey hate? In the words of former ACLU president Nadine Strossen, “empowering officials to punish any such expression necessarily vests the officials with enormous discretionary power, which will inevitably be wielded in ways that are arbitrary at best, and discriminatory at worst.” 

There are many examples of officials abusing the discretionary power wielded by speech codes to persecute the very people that they were intended to protect. For example, in 1988, after a series of racist incidents on campus, the University of Michigan adopted a hate speech code. In the 18 months that the code was in effect, it was invoked 20 times by white students accusing black students of racist speech. The only two instances in which speech was formally punished involved speech said by or on behalf of black students. The experience at British universities has been similar, where, following a rise in anti-Semitic incidents on campuses, a 1974 resolution was passed to prevent openly racist and fascist organizations from speaking on campuses. This resolution was in turn invoked to prevent the Israeli ambassador to England from speaking on campus on the grounds that Zionism is a form of unacceptable racism. 

I urge student activists to consider the challenge of creating a definition of “acts of hate and bias” that is not overly vague and subjective. Context will always matter, and as a result, some level of discretion will be left to administrators. However, after the decision of Larry Moneta to seek to punish speech that he personally found to be hateful, do we really want to give him and other university officials more power to draw the line between offensive and hateful? Under a new speech code, if Larry Moneta found Young Dolph’s “Get Paid” to be hateful towards women, could yesterday’s protestors, who sought to stand up for workers’ rights, be punished for playing the song? A new speech code could make it easier for administrators to punish students seeking to challenge the status quo. (Ironically enough, I believe this is one of the points that Larry Moneta was trying to make when he tweeted that “freedom of expression protects the oppressed far more than the oppressors.”) In the continued discourse about how to create a more inclusive learning environment for all students, it is important to consider the potential unintended consequences of hate speech codes and consider the warning of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who noted, “It is technically impossible to write an anti-speech code that cannot be twisted against speech that nobody means to bar.”

This is a guest column by Joseph Rufo, a first-year Ph.D. student in engineering.