Turns out hate speech is permitted, but incendiary speech that incites is not. The line between the two gets very blurry, very easily, very quickly. Insults and denigrations can be thrown around with impunity.
But if fists start flying as a result, a line is crossed, and what was previously allowed as verbal fair play is cried foul — and someone’s in trouble. In other words, if a sucker punch lands on someone’s chin, the speaker may be in hot water solely because someone else was “incited” to action. Even if only feelings get hurt, someone’s gotta pay a price. Such is the strange alchemy of speech law with its many convolutions, inversions, permutations and whatnot. Confusing? You betcha.
With an overflow crowd attending, CSUB’s Kegley Institute of Ethics recently held a panel discussion on the topic of free speech. KIE’s new director Dr. Burroughs, with Drs. Cargile and Kraybill, moderated by Dr. Olson, held forth on what’s good, bad, permitted, not permitted; the good, the bad, the ugly, were all sorted out as best they could be.
Turns out a public university and a private college campus are two very different places vis a vis who can say what, where, when, why, how, and how loudly and disrespectfully. The public university is at once both a public venue, a forum where virtually anyone — student or not — can stroll onto its public property and hold forth on virtually any topic for any length of time delivering almost any “content” they desire. It's also an educational institution where different rules apply and the content of whatever is spoken is expected to be more controlled, civil, learned, edifying, and to the point. And like overlapping circles in a Venn Diagram, the common area of overlap can get pretty messy as to which rules are expected and allowed to apply where, when and why.
The issues are complicated and warrant deep dives because more and more speakers are appearing and for sundry reasons are drawn to the public commons of university campuses like bees to sweet nectar.
Speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos cost UC Berkeley $800,000 for a 15-minute appearance. Conservative populist and speaker/writer/agitator Ann Coulter creates crowd-control headaches (and expenses) wherever she goes.
Where does “ethics” bear upon all this? Why KIE’s sponsorship of a discussion on free speech? Bringing ethics and free speech together forces a deeper look at what speech should be all about. What? Shouldn’t free speech be freely about whatever the speaker intends it to be, delivered in any free way the speaker intends to deliver it — without censorship?
That's a tough question. A number of ethical issues arise: Should public university campuses really be designated public forum places open to anyone saying anything they want? Doesn’t a local university — public or private — incur an ethical obligation to its host community to elevate and enrich it by the application of academic or aesthetic standards upon what occurs on its premises and in its forums?
Doesn’t the recognized goal of universities to pursue truth wherever it leads rule out the incompatible pursuit of tomfoolery, idiocy and nonsense? Sure, Thomas Jefferson, founder of America’s first public university — the University of Virginia — following the European Enlightenment model, wanted everything to be put under the heat of scrutiny, believing that gold would flow forth from the ore in the crucible, and the slag remaining would be seen for what it was. And, no, try as you might, not all briquettes of coal yield diamonds when heated or squeezed. Even the most enlightened European universities had filters.
C’mon, we don’t search dumpsters for gourmet meals, nor do we distill fine cognac from Andy Gump sludge. The raw material just isn’t there. There’s a time and a place for common sense. As some wag once said, let’s not be so open-minded that our brains fall out.
Brik McDill of Bakersfield is a retired psychologist. The opinions expressed are his own.