Responding to Hate Speech: Counterspeech and the University

Kristine L. Bowman & Katharine Gelber, Responding to Hate Speech: Counterspeech and the University. 28 Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law 248 (2021).

27 Pages Posted: 6 Aug 2022

See all articles by Kristine L. Bowman

Kristine L. Bowman

Michigan State University

Katharine Gelber

University of Queensland

Date Written: 2021

Abstract

How should universities--and specifically university presidents--respond to hate speech on their campuses? Most responses to this question revolve around whether the hate speech should be restricted, but we take a different approach. Instead offocusing on the hate speech, we focus on what a university leader can say to disrupt the harm that the hate speech causes, while also allowing the hate speech to proceed in line with First Amendment protections and principles. Drawing on speech act theory from philosophy of language, we argue that a university leader's silence in these situations whether literal or in the form of ineffective counterspeech is not a neutral response. Such silence accommodates injustice. However; a leader who engages in counterspeech can challenge the hate speech's legitimacy and prevent it from resetting the terms of debate in such a way that the discrimination in the hate speech becomes normalized, even if this counterspeech cannot undo the harm entirely. Thus, the kind of counterspeech that university leaders undertake matters a great deal. If it challenges the implied authority of the speaker and seeks to counter the inegalitarian norms the hate speech embodies, counterspeech can mitigate the harms of hate speech and simultaneously enhance the free speech environment on campus. This Article thus does three things. It contributes important insights to the specific literature about free speech on campus, it contributes more widely to the literature about free speech and harmful speech, and it suggests a way of systematically refraining thinking about the boundaries between free speech and harmful speech in campus debates.

Keywords: free speech, counter speech, inclusion, speech harms, First Amendment, hate speech, universities, postsecondary education

Suggested Citation

Bowman, Kristine L. and Gelber, Katharine, Responding to Hate Speech: Counterspeech and the University (2021). Kristine L. Bowman & Katharine Gelber, Responding to Hate Speech: Counterspeech and the University. 28 Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law 248 (2021)., Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4180723

Kristine L. Bowman (Contact Author)

Michigan State University ( email )

620 Farm Lane
East Lansing, MI 48824-1300
United States

Katharine Gelber

University of Queensland ( email )

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