And yet not without consequences. After the November 4th election of Barack Obama, 4 North Carolina State students hit the “Free Expression Tunnel” to spray paint messages that have now sparked a fierce debate on campus about how to respond to hate speech. The messages, including one that read “let’s shoot that Nigger in the head”, have prompted strong response from the NAACP and the Student Senate, who have passed the Free Expression Tunnel Response Act stating:
that we strongly urge that these students are punished to the full extent, of our current Policies, Rules, and Regulations; and be it further resolved that we encourage the University’s punishment and education of these individuals to include cross cultural community service, counseling, and diversity education…
The students in question have apparently expressed remorse, and have agreed to “diversity” education, but many feel they should suffer further consequences, even expulsion. However, Chancellor James L. Oblinger has given no indication that he intends to pursue such a measure:
This was not a hate crime under state or federal law, nor was it a criminal threat. In the circumstances, especially given that the writing took place within the boundaries of the Free Expression Tunnel, it is an expression that, however offensive, is not punishable due to constitutional free speech rights.
As the Chancellor’s statement suggests, hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, and there is a strong argument to be made as to why silencing hate speech is not the best idea for those desiring an more open society. Albert DeSilver, founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union, had this to say in 1920:
We do not think it is ever a good policy for an organization interested in human liberty to invoke repressive measures against any of its antagonists…by doing so it creates a danger of making a precedent against itself.
And yet there are very real concerns (and wounds) that are raised each time hate speech surfaces. How to respond to such speech is not a simple matter and should be given considerable thought. At NC State students have held a Unity Rally to counter the hateful messages. Debate on campus continues.