CUNY: The Appropriate Response to Hate Speech is More Speech

One of the largest issues universities face when protecting free speech is how to handle incidents of hate speech on campus. The reaction on many campuses, especially from the students, is to attempt to ban this type of speech. However, as we see in this report from the City University of New York (CUNY) system, universities should not ban this speech, but should rather allow the community to condemn it.

The report is the result of a six-month investigation into complaints, brought by The Zionist Organization of America, of anti-Semitic rhetoric from clubs such as Students for Justice for Palestine on four separate campuses within the CUNY system. After a long deliberation period the report found that

CUNY cannot punish such speech unless it is part of a course of conduct so pervasive or severe that it denies a person’s ability to pursue an education or participate in University life. It cannot mandate civility or sanction isolated derogatory comments, but what CUNY cannot punish, it can still condemn.

This report reminds us that universities have constitutional or contractual obligations to their students to protect speech, even when it is hurtful, and that the best way to combat hurtful speech is for individuals to speak up and condemn that speech, not universities removing individual rights. As Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”