Hate Speech? Bring It On

ACLU executive director says limiting the right of people to say vile things is a bad idea, especially on college campuses
Anthony Romero talking at Tufts
“Words hurt when they can convey hateful ideas,” said Anthony Romero, “but banning words doesn’t make hate go away.” Photo: Bethany Versoy
November 14, 2012

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Universities should allow free speech—even when it’s hateful—and encourage students to confront and engage those who use bigoted language, because the alternative is worse, according to Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

During a lecture at Tufts on Nov. 12, Romero said speech codes—efforts to suppress hate speech—that were put in place by universities in the 1980s and 1990s were well intentioned but wrong. Instead of limiting hateful language, he said, free and unfettered speech should be allowed, despite the possibility it may hurt others.

Romero was the 16th speaker in the Richard E. Snyder President’s Lecture Series, endowed by the former chairman and CEO of Simon and Schuster. Snyder, A55, established the series in 2004 to bring speakers to Tufts who have challenged conventional wisdom in their professional work.

Romero is the ACLU’s sixth executive director, and under his leadership, the ACLU has gained court victories involving the Patriot Act and filed landmark litigation on the torture and abuse of detainees in U.S. custody. He is the first Latino and openly gay man to serve as director of the organization and in 2005 was named one of Time magazine’s 25 Most Influential Hispanics in America.

He acknowledged that “anyone who has felt the sting of racist or sexist or homophobic attacks can understand why people felt these [speech] codes were appropriate,” and that university administrators believe they have an obligation to protect the most vulnerable students.

“But as a gay, Puerto Rican kid who grew up in public housing who gets hate mail every day, I believe there is no place for speech codes on campuses,” said Romero. “Words hurt when they can convey hateful ideas…but banning words doesn’t make hate go away. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. You can drive that hate and bigotry underground.”

He said conservatives have been treated badly on campuses, noting that conservative political commentator Ann Coulter had a pie thrown in her face at the University of Arizona and that an anti-immigrant group was forced off the stage at Columbia University. “Efforts to control free speech are like using tear gas,” he said. “You point it in a direction, and then the wind all of a sudden turns it back in your face.”

College campuses, said Romero, are especially important arenas for protecting free speech. He noted that such movements as Occupy Wall Street and anti–Vietnam War protests began at colleges and universities before moving into the public eye. “College life is so key, because it’s an incubator of those free ideas that will germinate elsewhere; campuses are where new ideas are discovered.”

He said the ACLU has taken on unpopular clients to defend their right to free speech. “Our commitment to free speech ranges from campuses and colleges to those who turn my stomach, such as the Westboro Baptist Church.”

The church, based in Topeka, Kansas, is known for demonstrating at the funerals of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying the reason they died is because the United States gives rights to gay people. “It’s a moment of incredible sadness,” Romero said, of the funeral protests. “Someone is putting their son or daughter into the earth, and some fool is protesting at the funeral. When government officials tried to step in and outlaw peaceful protest—peaceful but hateful—we stepped in and took Rev. Phelps, the church’s leader, as our client,” he continued. “I would never choose to spend time with him, and there is no need to break bread with him, but I do believe in his right to express his homophobic speech.”

Romero encouraged the audience to engage with those with whom they disagree. “The best way to deal with the speech of hate is to get in peoples’ faces,” he said. Romero suggested students attend meetings of groups they disagree with and have conversations. “You’ll strengthen those muscles,” he said, “and you will find moments of camaraderie. Push the envelope. Ask questions. Go to each other’s club meetings. Be muscular but thoughtful. Study it. Have fun. Fun is not quiet.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.