Free speech is safe at CSU — should hate speech be too?

What exactly is free speech, and is it safe at CSU? The answer is a bit more confusing than it may seem.

%28Graphic+Illustration+by+Charles+Cohen+%7C+The+Collegian%29

(Graphic Illustration by Charles Cohen | The Collegian)

CTV News: Natalie Devereaux

Dylan Tusinski, News Reporter

Editor’s Note: Read the Spanish version of this article here.

Last semester, two preachers arrived on The Plaza. According to firsthand accounts, they spouted racism, sexism and homophobia that students actively engaged with them and students walking by could hear. While their arrival has become something of an annual routine for Colorado State University students, the fallout after their departure is anything but.

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A debate surrounding the First Amendment and the notion of free speech has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. Some claim free speech is under attack on college campuses, while others claim some people are abusing their First Amendment rights. The preachers’ presence on campus brought that fiery debate from the headlines to The Plaza.

While the presence of controversial preachers on The Plaza is relatively normal for CSU students, the campus’ response to the preachers last September ignited a spirited debate on campus. After the preachers left their spot on The Plaza, a few students formed a group called CallOutCSU to facilitate a protest against the preachers and organize a list of 11 demands of the University’s administration.

Among the demands were that CSU President Joyce McConnell condemn hateful behavior, such as that of the preachers, that CSU establish a task force to monitor and investigate similar displays of hatred and that CSU relocate provocative speakers from The Plaza to the more isolated Stump.

That demand brought the nationwide debate over free speech to Fort Collins. The debate is centered on one fundamental question: What exactly is free speech, and is it safe at CSU?

The answer to that question is a bit more confusing than it may seem.

Historically, CSU has been a staunchly pro-free speech University. Even after bias-related incidents regarding blackface, white nationalist propaganda and swastika graffiti on campus, the University’s administration has repeatedly declined to take action against those perpetrating incidents like these, citing its commitment to the First Amendment.

CSU’s response — or lack thereof — has drawn both scorn and praise from campus political leaders. 

Gabby Reichardt, the president of conservative student group Turning Point USA at Colorado State University, said she and her organization approve of the way CSU has handled bias-related incidents in recent years.

Reichardt said even though she disagreed with the messages of the preachers on campus last semester, she supported the preachers’ right to be on campus.

“We never advocated or aligned with anything (the preacher) was saying, but we were advocating for his right to be there on public property,” Reichardt said while tabling on The Plaza. “People very much have the right to use their two legs they used to walk towards him to walk away from him.”

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Reichardt did mention that while she approves of how CSU’s administration has handled questions around free speech, she doesn’t like the mindset students on campus have on the issue.

“When it comes to college campuses … they kind of coin hate speech as something that’s always illegal, but they think that they should define what hate speech is, whereas hate speech is defined legally,” Reichardt said.

Reichardt’s point is partially correct — hate speech has no specific legal definition, but speech that is inflammatory, hateful or otherwise offensive has been repeatedly ruled to be protected speech.

On the other side of the aisle, Douglas Ringer, who graduated from CSU in December 2021 and was president of CSU Young Democrats at the time of his interview with The Collegian in December 2021, argued the opposite. He said many perpetrators of recent bias-related incidents crossed the line between free speech and harassment, effectively removing their First Amendment protections. 

“We spoke out against (the preachers) a lot and participated in the protest against them,” Ringer wrote in an email to The Collegian. “From what I have heard them say, they are hateful bigots who have no place on campus. I am a strong believer in the First Amendment and the protections it affords us; however, I think that much of what they said overstepped what may be considered protected speech.”

Ringer’s point is one that also has a partial basis in court rulings and legislation on the First Amendment. Speech that acts to incite violence or otherwise disrupt the peace has been ruled as not protected by the First Amendment.

Hate speech, however, has also been repeatedly ruled to be protected speech.

Heather Hicks, an assistant professor of political science at CSU, rebuked the politicized nature of the free speech debate. She said CSU hasn’t refused to punish hateful rhetoric out of a political ideology but rather out of legal necessity.

“The First Amendment only applies to public universities because it says the government cannot infringe on freedom of speech,” Hicks wrote in an email to The Collegian. “Public universities are considered part of the government for the purposes of the First Amendment because they get public funding and are basically run by the government.” 

“Whether a speaker’s First Amendment rights have been abridged depends on whether they were trying to speak at a public or private university,” Hicks wrote.

Hicks clarified that hate speech is a term that has very little legal weight. There are no laws banning or limiting hateful speech, as it has been repeatedly protected by the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court has ruled that hate speech is protected under First Amendment freedom of speech,” Hicks wrote. “Most recently, in (the) 2017 case of Matal v. Tam, the Supreme Court issued an unanimous ruling, which stated (that), ‘Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.’” 

“In other words, hate speech is included under free speech,” she wrote.

What’s yet to be seen, though, is how CSU’s community will handle the notion of free speech. While CSU itself may not be able to do much to keep provocative speakers from preaching hate, propagating violence or otherwise riling up the campus, students at the school are showing increasing willingness to publicly oppose speakers they see as hateful.

Reach Dylan Tusinski at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @unwashedtiedye.