Campus Free Speech

Can Mizzou Admins Declare the Campus a Safe Space for the First Amendment?

Threats to free speech are everywhere.


The University of Missouri—ground zero for the recent conflicts between student activists and student journalists—has a new vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion: one who apparently believes "the First Amendment does not give people a free pass to go round saying hateful things," according to The Economist.

The vice chancellor, Charles Henson, is a law professor and former legal counsel to a major corporation. I suspected The Economist might have misrepresented his views, so I reached out to him for comment. Sure enough, the magazine's paraphrasing of his statement stripped it of context, he told me:

In the context of discussing some of the events at Mizzou I remarked that there is a misperception about the scope of the First Amendment.  It seems that many believe that there is no limit on speech (verbal and non-verbal), yet Supreme Court precedent demonstrates that speech can be regulated. When I was talking about hate-speech, I was addressing the fact that most hate speech is not subject to regulation with the caveat that if there is more—like a threat of violence—the hate speech loses its protection. For example, I can call someone a hateful name, but I cannot call them a name and threaten to do them harm. At the same time, I was also talking about the unacknowledged tension between the First and Fourteenth Amendments when we consider the possibility of hate speech regulation. In any event, I did not say, and would not have said "the First Amendment does not give people a free pass to go round saying hateful things" as a blanket statement.

That's a relief. Even so, Mizzou administrators are already taking steps to meet the demands of student activists—steps that could jeopardize free expression rights on campus. As I wrote in a recent column for The Daily Beast:

Indeed, Henson and Mizzou have already devised an "inclusive language guide" similar to the one in place at the University of New Hampshire and other schools. Mizzou's guide warns students not to be "ageist or adultist," "minoritize" underrepresented groups, and that the term "color blind" can be disempowering. It also informs them that a "safe space" is an area that does not tolerate "harassment or hate speech."

Administrators can and must make Mizzou a safe space in exactly one sense: The campus should be free of literal violence. But contrary to the beliefs of a great many students on campus, Mizzou officials don't have the authority to shelter them from speech they deem hateful.

Read the whole thing here.