Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 guarantees all students an educational environment free from discrimination, but what happens when free speech threatens one’s safety on campus as it did recently for students at the University of Virginia?
In a New York Times article, UVA undergraduate Brendan Novak said: “I still believe in the sanctity of the First Amendment. True progress and healing can be achieved only through open, honest dialogue. But what happened in Charlottesville doesn’t, and perhaps never did, qualify as protected speech.”
Nearly a half century after the U.S. Congress gave life to Brown v. Board of Education through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, seemingly little has changed with respect to white supremacist backlash to anti-racist changes in public, much less public education.
More specifically, the recent white supremacist demonstrators marched and chanted through the streets of Charlottesville because of plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee on UVA’s campus. Many have asked and answered why modern-day white racists continue to spew hate, but what is also important to ask is: Why does this happen so often around public education?
What is it about public education that causes people to expect and demand absolute free speech? What about hate speech? How can universities and other public institutions respond to these types of demands while also evolving with the political progression of the time? Certainly, we are no longer operating like a Jim Crow nation, and our public institutions must reflect this. So how do we ensure free speech, but silence hate?
Two years ago, The University of Texas at Austin took steps to do just this when a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was removed from the Main Mall on campus. For some students, faculty members and staffers, this was a major achievement that came mostly in response to a mass shooting that occurred in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Black students and faculty members who walked by that statue every day were reminded of the brutal violence, rape and murder that Davis’ image represents. After its removal, they experienced a brief moment of relief from the architecturally manifested oppression that statues such as this incite.
But just as history has shown us, not everyone was happy with the decision.
Some saw it as motivation to fight. Subsequent to the removal of the Davis statue and the controversy it stirred, race and racism began to undergird many issues and incidences not only at UT Austin, but beyond. In response, the university enacted its own hate-incident policy as a means to give students some recourse as they deal with racial turmoil while also trying to make it to class on time.
More and more universities are embracing anti-hate policies every year. These schools along with UT Austin and UVA must figure out a way to hold the ideal benefits of education, the civil benefits of free speech, and hate speech.
Freedom of speech is not an absolute right. The intent behind freedom of speech is the right to free speech without fear of government interference. It seems some have taken this constitutional right to mean having the freedom of speech without any interference at all. Universities have a right to ensure all students have access to an educational environment free from discrimination.
Universities must condemn acts of hate, bias, intolerance, prejudice and discrimination, not only through policy, but through action as well. They must design and implement hate incident policies as UT Austin has done.
As a best practice, when designing polices intended for marginalized students, input from these student groups is necessary. Universities must also create and budget for a hate incident response team with the purpose to respond, evaluate and provide recommendations regarding hate incidences on campus.
And finally, universities must work with their state legislatures to set policies that promote freedom of speech with the intent to engage in open and civil dialogue so that expansion of knowledge is optimal while safety of students is achieved.
Universities are a beacon of learning, but without ensuring intent to engage in safe, open and civil dialogue as free speech was intended, marginalized students will live in constant fear.
Shetal Vohra-Gupta is a lecturer of social work and the associate director of the Institute of Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin. Naomi Reed is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin.
A verison of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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