Richard Walker, a University of Central Florida sophomore and member of Knights for Socialism, believes his school should be limiting the voices of those who spew ‘hateful’ rhetoric on campus.
“The university’s first responsibility is ensuring the safety and well-being of their students,” Walker said. “It might be just words now, but if you let that sort of thing come into the public discourse and become widely accepted, it doesn’t stay words.”
In America’s politically polarized environment, students such as Walker increasingly think colleges should ban speech that may be considered by some, ‘racist’ or ‘defamatory’, a trend that worries advocates of the First Amendment.
More than 40 percent of students believe that the First Amendment does not protect hate speech, according to a Brookings Institute poll taken of 1,500 students nationwide last year. Almost 20 percent believe that using violence is an acceptable means to stop such speech, the poll found. In all, 53 percent of students — 61 percent Democratic and 47 percent Republican — believe that colleges and universities should prohibit offensive speech, according to the survey.
Hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, but “fighting words,” slurs or epithets that would cause a reasonable person to react violently, are not.
“I’m very disconcerted about how very uninformed — frankly dangerously uninformed — many college students are about the First Amendment,” said Lawrence Walters, a Longwood, Fla.-based attorney who focuses on First Amendment issues.
Some students at UCF say free speech should be an integral part of college life.
“If you’re going to insulate people in college from offensive speech, how are they going to survive the real world?” said UCF junior Alexander Zimmerman. He said he has been spat at and threatened because he supports President Donald Trump.
Florida lawmakers are trying to broaden free-speech rights on campus by making all areas of campus “traditional public forums” and making schools financially liable if speaking events are disrupted.
What constitutes hate speech varies widely from person to person, but a generally accepted definition is that it “offends, threatens or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits,” according to the American Bar Association.
Walker said he doesn’t think using violence is a “categorically bad” response to speech that intimidates marginalized groups or promotes ethnic cleansing. He pointed to the white nationalist march last year in Charlottesville, Va., as an example of an event where violence may be a necessary response to the marchers.
During the march in August, white nationalists and neo-Nazis from across the country — bearing tiki torches and chanting racist slogans — converged at the University of Virginia to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
There were several violent clashes between the white supremacists and people protesting their presence. The day ended when a white nationalist allegedly drove his car through a crowd of protesters, killing a woman.
After the events in Charlottesville, University of Central Florida Police changed their approach to dealing with the issue, including creating a regional task force for local law enforcement agencies to coordinate should a controversial speaker come to campus.
“I think that it’s fair to say that things did not go as well as they could have had a proper plan been implemented and executed,” UCF Police Deputy Chief Carl Metzger said of the Charlottesville march.
In October, the department sent 15 officers to a speech at the University of Florida given by white nationalist Richard Spencer so they could bring back lessons learned from the police response there.
The UF protests were peaceful, aside from a few skirmishes — a man with swastikas on his shirt was punched in the face while walking through a group of protesters and a shooting that happened after the event. Nobody was seriously injured.
UCF officers have worked several high-profile events with political speakers recently, all of which were relatively peaceful.
In 2016, right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at the university after his event was initially canceled because of security concerns.
Several people were removed from the events, but no arrests were reported.
The department may face its next test in April. After conservative speaker Charlie Kirk announced an event at the university, a group of Orlando self-proclaimed ‘anti-fascists’ vowed on Twitter to show up and “defend each other from fascists & their sympathizers.”
UCF Police commonly respond to complaints about campus preachers and anti-abortion advocates. Students are often seen debating them at several “free speech zones” across the campus.
“Our policy is that the university is a limited public forum,” said Shane Juntenen, the director of the university’s Office of Student Involvement.
Students and faculty aren’t restricted to those spaces, just those unaffiliated with the school, including the preachers and anti-abortion protesters, he said.
Walters opposes free speech zones, saying they condition students to believe it’s OK to be sheltered from opinions they disagree with, no matter how vile.
A measure in the Florida Senate seeks to ban “free-speech zones” and hold universities financially responsible up to $100,000 if students or protesters disrupt controversial events.
The Senate Education Committee approved the bill in a 7-4 vote. It would have to go through another committee before it can be debated on the floor.