USC Price panel examines blurred lines separating free speech, hate speech

January 8, 2018

Speakers, from left: Antonette Cordero, Maurice Hudson, Camille Rich and LaVonna Lewis (Photos by Upasana Paul)
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By Matthew Kredell

Professor LaVonna Lewis led a timely discussion on the blurred lines between free speech and hate speech on Nov. 28, as part of the USC Price School of Public Policy’s Diversity and Inclusion Initiative.

Dean Jack H. Knott noted that the issue is enormously important in the national political dialogue but particularly on college campuses, which are wrestling with questions regarding the exercise of free speech.

“There’s been a very horrendous growth in hate speech in the country over the past year,” Knott said. “The people who support that kind of speech have been emboldened by the political climate in which we live.”

Lewis, who serves as director of Price’s Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives, moderated a distinguished panel featuring: Antonette Cordero, chief of the Division of Legal Affairs for the California Department of Justice; Camille Rich, a USC associate provost and professor at the Gould School of Law; and Maurice Hudson, an adjunct lecturer at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and former New York City Assistant Corporation Counsel in the federal civil rights division. Given the quality of the initial discussion and the importance of the topic, a follow-up panel is planned for later this spring semester.

Rich, who teaches a course on the First Amendment, explained how the amendment established that Congress, along with all government entities including state governments, shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. She noted that California passed a law that holds private universities to the same First Amendment standards as the government.

However, there are limitations to free speech when it comes to threats, incitement and discriminatory harassment.

What’s the difference?

Cordero added that Article 1, Section 2 of the California constitution provides even broader and greater protections for free speech than the First Amendment. She asserted that the biggest misconception over free speech and hate speech is that the two can easily be distinguished.

“I don’t think they can be easily distinguished because one person’s hate speech is another person’s free speech,” Cordero said. “I also think it’s a misconception that you can easily articulate a definition of hate speech that we can agree on. It would not be hard to agree with the core, but when you start getting around the edges I guarantee you will not be able to reach consensus on where you draw the line.”

Rich disagreed that there isn’t a clear difference between free speech and hate speech.

“I think you can figure out what the line is,” Rich said. “I think hate speech clearly has real, concrete effects for students at a university. If you’re triggered in certain ways by stereotypes, you will actually perform less well academically, you will withdraw from the community.”

Words have an effect

Hudson noted that, in the current wave of sexual harassment allegations in the news, a big shift has taken place — women are now coming forward, and the broader public is believing them. When marginalized persons report bias, whether “cultural, or related to their gender, sexual identity or race — believe them,” Hudson said. “I’m a social worker and an attorney. I really see and feel what happens to people when they get cut down by words, and the notion that using words is not a type of action does not seem true.”

Cordero advised the students to communicate with people they disagree with in a civil or respectful way, without thinking they need to silence them. If someone with hateful speech is being allowed to speak on campus, they could hold an alternative panel discussion on something they want to promote.

In addressing the harm that certain speech causes, Rich commented that a community can come together and define what is in bounds and what is out of bounds, based on the ethics and norms of that community. “We can set standards that protect vulnerable groups within our midst without substantively changing the core ideas being discussed or the scope of debate.”

“My takeaway is that it is a harsh world, and it’s sort of headed in a bad direction,” Rich said. “I think we can turn it back around in the right way, but we’ll have to fight every second to do it.”