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GUEST COLUMN: Free speech for all, even racists and transphobes


During November 2018 this campus was absolutely rocked by two incidents where there were inappropriate messages written on white boards. The white board that had “fuck u black monkey whores” written on it was attached to the door with a marker magnetized to it. The other white board that had “piece of shit transie RA” written on it was directly outside of the resident assistant’s door with a marker provided as well. 

It is no surprise to me that there was something offensive written on these boards; they were open to the public with a writing utensil provided. 

It is the same as Facebook, but worse: you have a wall that anyone can post on and you can erase something if you don’t like it, but the owner of the white board can’t control who writes on their board like a Facebook user can control who writes on their wall. 

Central Michigan University is not a private company though, so you can’t report such language when it happens and expect a ban. CMU is a public university that should foster free speech and promote the exchange of ideas, not silence speech. 

Keeping in mind that Central Michigan is a public university, think about this: In R.A.V. v. St. Paul (1992), Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia writes that while he agrees it is the “’responsibility, even the obligation, of diverse communities” to address similar hateful acts in all forms, “...the manner of that confrontation cannot consist of selective limitations upon speech.” This case established that content-based bans on speech are unconstitutional. In Street v. New York (1969), Justice John Harlan wrote that speech which people find offensive cannot be banned simply because the content is offensive. To cement that precedent, the Supreme Court held in Matal v. Tam (2017) that banning speech based on one’s viewpoint is unconstitutional, and “giving offense is a viewpoint.”

This all circles back to the messages written on the whiteboards: the speech written was constitutionally protected. In the R.A.V. case the Supreme Court struck down an ordinance that penalized teenagers for burning crosses in the lawns of black residents. The court said that regulations which ban speech based solely on what the content is directed at would be unconstitutional. 

They provide examples in their opinions to prove their point but allow me to provide a more relevant one. Here at Central Michigan University there is (at the time this article was typed) a poster in Powers Hall that reads “Nazis have no place here.” However, it is unlikely that one can say or write the same things about a black person, or Jewish person, or any group that is popular to sympathize with without receiving a certain amount of punishment. The same concept applies when the university protects adversarial speech towards straight white men but not the same speech towards a pansexual black transwoman. Speech cannot be regulated based on who the content is directed toward, so this dynamic would be unconstitutional if true.

I’m left wondering what the demand for cameras, if met, would accomplish. Even if the author(s) of those notes were caught, what is there to be done? There is no current legal precedent that prevents this type of speech. 

Hate speech isn’t recognized under the law. It only accomplishes putting a face to the words. That doesn’t prevent the messages from being written, persuade anyone from being racist or transphobic, and there is no constitutional rule or regulation that can stop it based only on content.

Stephen Cici and Wendy Williams, Cornell University researchers on psychological science, published a research article in May of 2018 titled “Who Decides What Is Acceptable Speech On Campus? Why Restricting Free Speech Is Not The Answer.” It concluded, as the title would lead you to believe, restricting free speech is not the answer to preventing undesirable speech. In fact, they found that free speech in the form of exchanging ideas is a better answer to combat that speech. 

Unless the cameras were demanded so they could find the authors and exchange ideas, I don’t see much use.

Michigan State University banned white boards and I would hate to see CMU do the same. Here  is my suggestion: Everyone should get thicker skin or don’t provide a whiteboard to write on and marker to write with if you would have a hard time dealing with something similar.