Solutions for Higher Education engages in deeper reflection of critical issues in the world of colleges and universities.
In Episode 39, President Scott L Wyatt and Professor Steve Meredith are joined by Geoff Landward to discuss free speech. Landward is the Assistant Commissioner for Law and Policy and General Counsel for the Utah System of Higher Education.
“At Southern Utah University, we've worked really hard to make sure that we are, in fact, a marketplace of ideas," said Wyatt. “All kinds of ideas are welcome—conservative ideas, liberal ideas. We've always thought that every—and I'm using these words very loosely—but that every liberal student should be confronted with conservative ideas and every conservative student with liberal ideas. That is such an important part of learning.”
Universities are a place of higher learning and that means being a place for the free exchange of ideas. Free speech is not absolute though and in the case of speech that rises to the level of harassment, universities have a duty to act.
“Right now, the generally accepted concept of harassment is that the conduct itself is so severe, persistent, or pervasive as to deny or limit a student's ability to participate in or benefit from the institution's activities and programs,” said Landward. “In that case, the courts have said a hostile environment exists and that means you've crossed the line from speech, and now the student, because of that persistent or pervasive harassment, cannot enjoy the reason they are there in the first place, and that is to receive their education. That is when the school is obligated to act and to punish that action.”
Where the distinction between speech that is harassment and speech that is protected can get really difficult to understand is with regards to hate speech. Often hate speech is associated with violent hate crimes, but hate speech itself is not a crime and does not often rise to the level of harassment.
“Because of the association between hate speech and hate crimes, because people associate hate with violence, they assume that the speech is violent but it's not,” said Landward. “In most cases, hate speech is an expression of an idea, an expression of a viewpoint. And you have to remember that even decades ago, a lot of what we consider now to be hate speech was acceptable and over time has been viewed as less and less acceptable now, even ugly and horrid. But it's just the expression of a viewpoint and an idea. And that's why it's so difficult to try and regulate hate speech, because you're ultimately regulating a viewpoint and regulating an idea, and that's notoriously hard.”
Listen to Episode 39 here.