September 19, 2019 | 52° F

Free Speech Week event at Rutgers explores the legality of hate speech

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As part of national Free Speech Week, Rutgers held an event entitled "What is 'Hate Speech'? Definitions, Laws, Solutions." The event featured various speakers including Susan Keith, the Department of Journalism and Media Studies Chair.

As part of Free Speech Week, the Department of Communication and the Department of Journalism and Media Studies hosted an event titled “What is ‘Hate Speech’? Definitions, Laws, Solutions.”

The event featured talks by Department of Journalism and Media Studies Chair Susan Keith and professors David Greenberg and John Pavlik.

Each professor discussed aspects of hate speech, such as what it is, where it comes from and its nature in American society, as well as how these things relate to free speech in general.

“This is a conversation that is occurring all over the place, on campuses, on social media, in politics,” Greenberg said in an interview. “So concerns about offensive speech, hate speech, are just something that we’re all dealing with and here you have a faculty that has some expertise in the subject, so Free Speech Week seemed like a good time to take up some of these issues.”

Students often hear about issues like speech controversies over racial and gender issues in very charged environments, he said. They get it through their social media networks or through their friends, and people can get very passionate one way or the other in their views.

Greenberg said he hopes students heard ideas at the event that they had not heard before, and that provoke them to think more deeply about these issues.

“It’s useful to think about these things in an academic context as well as in terms of one’s personal experience," he said. "I hope it will give students a different vantage point.”

Drawing lines around what can and cannot be said can be difficult, Greenberg said.

“ ... For that reason, liberals have tended to favor a wider berth for free speech, it is better to allow more speech than to restrict more,” he said. “After all, when you restrict speech you don’t actually make those ideas go away. They’re still there and, you know, better that they be expressed and acknowledged and confronted and rebutted perhaps, than sort of trying to suppress them.”

In an interview after the event, Pavlik said that he is concerned about free speech in terms of a press system that can be independent and impartial.

During his presentation, he discussed the monarchal government in Qatar, which he said significantly curtails freedom of the press.

Pavlik said that, in general, he is in full support of peaceful student protests. It is something that is not only protected by the First Amendment but is important for a healthy society and a healthy democracy.

“We need to get citizens back engaged, and we need to have critical consumers of news, we need to have people who are actively communicating about issues that matter to them,” he said. “Protest is one of the most important ways to do that.”

Pavlik encourages his students to always try to be respectful, but that part of the problem is offensive and derogatory language being used by high-seated government officials that make hateful speech seem okay, he said.

Alexander Stankard, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, attended the event.

“I am very passionate about bridging the gap between disparate worldviews. You can get a lot of flack for doing this in 2017. Being willing to see two sides is a dangerous thing in 2017,” Stankard said.

He said that he is generally inherently skeptical of extreme views, but that acknowledging all points of view is vital at this point in time.

Stankard said that he is very against hateful argumentation and thinks that we should try to communicate our perspectives reasonably.

“Hate speech as it is being practiced on social media is being used to invalidate certain perspectives,” he said. “One of the grievances, for example, (Black Lives Matter), their lived experiences are being invalidated by those who oppose them.”

Giana Castelli, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, said she was pleasantly surprised with the event.

“I thought it was going to be more about censoring speech or different points of views,” she said. “I had different expectations because on certain college campuses conservative beliefs are being suppressed. They are seen as dangerous.”

She said that people who are conservative tend to hold back on expressing their beliefs because they feel they may be harassed.

“I thought this was a very bridging gap between people who are on different sides of the spectrum,” she said.

Stephen Weiss

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