In a free society, people are bound to offend each other from time to time. That’s a democratic price of admission we should all be willing to pay. There are plenty of people around the world who would surely accept the discomfort and vitriol that sometimes accompany free speech in place of state suppression of that speech.
Learning to recognize and respond to offensive speech is a critical part of education in any free society, especially in the digital age. Students — particularly college students — should be prepared to occasionally be offended during the exchange of new and different perspectives, and to meet speech they find objectionable with speech of their own.
As Robert Dana, the University of Maine’s vice president of student life told News Center Maine recently, following a controversy involving a College Republicans’ Facebook post about Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day, “We support every student’s right to free speech and to meandering through the marketplace of ideas.”
That last phrase is the operative one. We all meander, and sometimes lose our way, as we explore and express our ideas. That does not mean we should excuse offensive or hateful speech, but we should not pretend it doesn’t exist, either.
Recently, as reported by the Lansing State Journal, a college professor at Michigan State University caused an uproar by sending out a survey to students that included racist and offensive statements pulled from online posts and comments. The backlash was strong and swift, and the professor eventually removed the survey from a school website and apologized.
But the teacher, public relations and social media professor Saleem Alhabash, was not celebrating or endorsing the messages — he was trying to better understand them and the reactions they generate.
“The intention of the survey was not to offend anyone,” Alhabash said. “I’m deeply apologetic to anyone that was hurt by seeing these messages.”
While the survey did include a disclaimer at the bottom that explained the intent to “evaluate the level of aggressiveness for some statements that have been taken from the popular social media platforms,” some students did not find that sufficient.
“The disclaimer was not a fair warning enough,” said Mya Jones, an MSU student who is black, as reported by the Lansing State Journal.
“I don’t feel safe, at all. I say that to a very extreme extent,” Jones added. “I do not feel safe. I do not know who to turn to.”
We do not want to diminish or discount students’ feelings about their own safety. Jones and others should speak up when they feel uncomfortable or unsafe, and use their freedom of speech push back against hateful messages (students are holding two peaceful protests this weekend). But we also suggest that any outrage against the professor’s survey, rather than the sources and messages he was trying to study, is misplaced.
“At some point, we have to acknowledge that these are things that exist in the real world,” Alhabash said. “It is very sad to say it was not very hard to find these posts online. Just looking at a YouTube comment section you will find things that are even more abhorrent.”
Alhabash should have taken more care to alert students about the content — by placing the disclaimer at the start of the survey, for example, and perhaps by providing more of a heads up that allowed students to decide whether or not they even wanted to receive the survey in the first place. Plus, the survey was sent at an already tense time on Michigan State’s campus, with several recent incidents including a black student finding an apparent noose made out of tissue paper on her dorm room door and vandalism at the school’s Hillel center for Jewish student life.
“I know how painful it is,” the professor said. “I sincerely apologize that some people have felt hurt by these particular posts that were taken out of context of the research.”
Offensive and even hateful speech is protected from government regulation under the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law…”). That does not stop private entities, including the Bangor Daily News, from prohibiting hate speech or name calling from our own platforms, as we have done with a new online comments policy this year. And it certainly does not prevent people from pushing back with their own speech.
But the unfortunate fact is, offensive and hateful speech exists in our discourse and is proliferating online, here at home and around the world. It should be acknowledged and countered with speech. We do ourselves a disservice, however, if we let discomfort or even fear get in the way of difficult conversations and attempts to better understand it.