At Penn, it is not particularly dangerous to be a journalist. We, the staff of Penn’s student newspaper, are grateful for that. We are grateful that our opinion columnists may assume that if they air an unpopular or controversial viewpoint, they will not be physically assaulted. We are grateful that, when our reporters publish unflattering truths, they are not threatened with sanction or harm.
We feel entitled to rely on these assumptions because we do not do our work in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey or Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but on the campus of a prestigious American university, where, generally, liberal norms of peaceable dispute and nonviolence are, we believe, deeply ingrained.
It is therefore alarming to observe what seems to be the fraying of these norms on some American campuses. It is deeply concerning that, at least among some fellow students at peer schools, the academic norm of resolving our ideological disputes with words instead of fists seems to be weakening.
In recent weeks, at the University of California at Berkeley and Middlebury College, students turned to physical violence to prevent speeches by guests whom they found objectionable.
Given the extensive prior coverage of and commentary on these events in other publications, we would ordinarily see no need to chime in. However, we have been specifically disappointed that some other student newspapers’ editorial boards are not standing up for the principles of free speech and dialogue on which student newspapers depend.
Following the riot on Berkeley’s campus, its student paper’s editorial stopped short of condemning those who engaged in it outright. Middlebury’s student paper, The Middlebury Campus, said nothing after an attack on controversial scholar Charles Murray put the professor moderating his talk in the hospital. Faced with a controversy over the invitation of provocative Canadian scholar Jordan Peterson, whose positions on pronoun-usage many students view as hateful towards transgender individuals, to speak at Harvard University, The Crimson criticized what it characterized as “unqualified support of [free speech]” as “tone-deaf.”
Perhaps most alarmingly, The Wellesley News, with whom we collaborated on our election endorsement in November, went a step further, appearing, in a frankly disturbing editorial, to endorse “hostility” against those who “refuse to adapt their beliefs.” Following closely as it did upon the heels of the events at Berkeley and Middlebury, it requires an exceptionally charitable reading to interpret that remark as something other than a conditional endorsement of violence.
Amid these disappointments, we wish to clearly reaffirm some basic principles. Violence is never, under any circumstance whatsoever, an appropriate or acceptable response to the peaceable exchange of ideas, however hateful or otherwise reprehensible they might be. A speaker’s freedom from violence must be absolute. If individuals choose, as they did at Middlebury and Berkeley, to respond to speech with violence, the moral fault is theirs and theirs alone. Speech is not violence. No misguided notion of self-defense can justify responding to the former with the latter.
The willingness to let someone speak on a college campus must not be confused with endorsement of the views expressed. Penn students have exemplified this in their reactions to the homophobic “preachers” whose appearance on campus has now become something of a routine.
The term “hate speech” can be useful for the purpose of arguing that some speech ought not to be taken seriously. Subjectively applying the label, however, does not render the speech in question legally or ethically subject to violent or coercive suppression. “Hate speech” is too flexible a concept to be used in this way. Even when we are firmly convinced that a speaker’s positions are motivated by hatred, to threaten or carry out physical aggression remains, always, an unacceptable response.
And so we say what we wish our peers would have the conviction to: Never perpetrate violence in the name of attacking hate speech, and shame on those who fail to condemn such violence. You do yourselves and the rest of us a great disservice.