Students have tools to fight bigotry, promote free speech

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Photo Credit: Laura Hallas | Daily Texan Staff

Editor's note: Laura Hallas is a candidate to be the next Daily Texan Editor-in-Chief. The following editorial ran alongside another by Janhavi Nemawarkar, who is also running for the position. Be sure to cast your ballot on March 1 and 2 at utexasvote.org to weigh in on who should take on that role next.

Half a century ago, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and other civil rights heroes peacefully marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were met by police officers under the orders of the white supremacist Governor George Wallace, who tear gassed the protesters and beath them with batons. Images of the brutality shocked the nation, and led to the introduction of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Congress. 

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rebuked fellow Senator Elizabeth Warren for reading a letter written by Coretta Scott King — the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. Within hours, the text of the letter was trending on Twitter, and millions more Americans now know Coretta Scott King’s words and have adopted a new feminist battle cry: “nevertheless, she persisted.”

These two incidents are decades apart, but both display the fundamental consequences of suppressed free speech. Public attention and support have a way of flocking to the perceived underdog when messages or beliefs are undercut extrajudicially.

This message is clear in the context of the civil rights movement — don’t suppress us, because it will only motivate us to come back, stronger. However, this effect also extends to intensely unpopular, even morally repulsive messages. 

For example, self-described “alt-right”  speaker Milo Yiannopoulos was recently blocked from speaking at UC Berkeley following violent protests against him. But to what effect? Berkeley students came away with a repressive reputation while Yiannopoulos emerges with an air of victimhood. The use of violence to suppress a controversial but legally organized event propagates notions that the primary victims of today’s society are white males, especially conservative ones. The inaccuracy of this sentiment goes overlooked when its target audience feels embattled and self-righteous.

Vigilante attacks on less-public individuals have the same effect. Just this past week, a student’s identifying information was posted on University kiosks along with implicit encouragements of violence against him — presumably because of his political views. This should concern all students. Explicitly targeting fellow students for their controversial beliefs will only drive them further from participating in productive discussion, granting basis for victimhood. Furthermore, this behavior turns campus into a battleground where we fear our beliefs and affiliations will be used as a basis for inciting violence against us via vigilante attacks. Not that these tactics work — just ask any Texan columnist. The sometimes violent, always personal threats that stream into our office are uncomfortable, but don’t silence those with a message to share. 

Students come to the University of Texas to be informed, not intimidated. Facts combined with constructive activism will serve us far better than violent intimidation or vigilante identification. Students have the privilege to invite speakers, peacefully protest, and publish opinions. These are powerful weapons, and we should be prepared to use them in the face of ideologies that threaten our university’s stated values. 

And if Yiannopoulos wanted to come to campus? Let him show his ignorance, but with preconditions. Provocateurs’ platforms sound incoherent once they’re actually aired.  As the New Yorker noted, a university would never allow an alchemist to lecture in Welch, at least not without a line of chemists to contradict his every claim. Yiannopoulos may come if he likes, but he should submit to some fact checking in order to speak. Universities can protect free speech and host controversial speakers without compromising their informative missions. 

Granting someone an open stage can feel uncomfortably close to an endorsement. The University should allow civil rights leaders and immigration lawyers to speak alongside such a speaker to prevent false equivalency. If this option doesn’t exist, students should fight for such a policy or review process.  By focusing on the content of the event rather than the event itself, students can shed a critical light on blatant lies without denying the right to peacefully speak.

It is important to note that speech that incites immediate violence is a dangerous category of its own, and cannot be passed off as simply controversial. Legally called “fighting words,” this is an exception to the First Amendment, and cannot be tolerated.

Student media, including The Daily Texan, serve at the crossroads to protect free speech while rejecting hate speech. For example, white supremacist group known to buy advertising space in student newspapers, a tactic the Texan fell victim to in 2013. However, there are safeguards in place, in the form of advertising policy statements that notes all advertising material is subject to review, and potential rejection, by a board of students. Similarly, op-ed submissions are subject to review by the editorial board. Joining media organizations and writing well-researched opinions helps students shape policy and discourage hate speech. 

Whether in speaker events or op-eds, truth is the litmus test for publication. Anger and impassioned opinions are healthy responses in a free society, but lasting change comes from strong shows of truth, not vigilante attacks or violently silencing opinions. To fight hate, we must maintain our institutions.

Hallas is a Plan II, economics and health and society sophomore from Allen.