The Place For Outrage When Free Speech Is Hate Speech: Our Mission, Our Values, Our Obligations

Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt, Professor of English and Co-coordinator of the Gender Studies Program

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This debate on our campus about free speech is misguided.  The dialogue should not be about the value of free speech, but what kinds of free speech we value?

Let me begin then by asking a series of questions here:

Do we value free speech that degrades the members of the Linfield community, or do we value free speech that values them? Do we value free speech that is an attempt to promote racism, homophobia, transphobia, bigotry, misogyny, rape culture, violence against women and a disregard for disabled individuals on our campus?  Or do we value free speech that will express outrage and speak up against any form of “reason” that advocates for such vile and discriminatory ideas to be given a platform on our campus? Do we value free speech that allows us to understand the historical depths of injustice and the current climate of racism in this country? Or do we value free speech that says that racism does not exist, or we have a right to be racist, or the culture of women being raped is a myth? Do we value free speech that honors diversity that promotes a climate that is anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-bigoted, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic, anti-disabled, and anti-abuse of power and privilege? Or do we value free speech that will promote White ethno nationalism and degrade the value of multiculturalism and the civil rights protections provided by the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

As we think and debate these above questions we also need to consider the place for “offensive” speech or “hate speech” within the discourse on free speech on our campus. How far do we have to go to draw the line? Or have we become too thin-skinned, or so intolerant that we cannot even debate offensive ideas anymore? Liberal arts colleges have been charged with producing a generation of “snowflakes” who will all (apparently) melt when the harsh world descends on them.  Snowflakes have been charged with centering their reactions to the world around them based on their experience rather than reason and arguments that traditional academic discourses demand. In a recent and widely read opinion piece published in the New York Times “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech” by Ulrich Baer, Baer says, “Widespread caricatures of students as overly sensitive, vulnerable and entitled “snowflakes” fail to acknowledge the philosophical work that was carried out, especially in the 1980s and ’90s, to legitimate experience — especially traumatic experience — which had been dismissed for decades as unreliable, untrustworthy and inaccessible to understanding.”

Yet according to Baer, liberal free-speech advocates are adamant in pointing out that the views of individuals like Richard Spencer, Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoulos and others “must be heard first to be rejected. But this is not the case. Universities invite speakers not chiefly to present otherwise unavailable discoveries, but to present to the public views they have presented elsewhere. When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good.”

While the above view is held by some of our own community members at Linfield, there are those that do not believe that free speech in a private liberal arts college like our is obligated to provide a platform for ideas that can harm our community members, particularly those that belong to minority groups on our campus. In fact, Baer precisely points out what free-speech is not:

The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.”

In recent months there has been a sustained critique of what is offensive or not, and how free speech, even if it is offensive must be allowed on college campuses.  Interestingly enough, such critiques of “offensive” free speech have coincided with the historical rise the extreme right wing ideologies and their fascist take over of not “identity politics” but identiterian politics globally – from Narendra Modi in India and the rise of Hindu Nationalism and extreme anti-Muslim sentiments, to the Brexit vote in the UK and the rise of xenophobia and anti-immogrant sentiments,  to the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the rise of White Nationalism, racism, xenophobia and the increase in hate crimes across the country.  

Proponents of identiterian politics continue to use outright “hate” speech as “free speech” where figures like Yiannopoulos can say, “Now, some of the most dangerous places for women to be in the world are modern, Western, rich European countries. Why? One Reason. Islamic Immigration – it’s got to stop.” And then there is Richard Spencer, the leader of the Alt right movement whose vision of an ideal society is to build a White society. In December 2016, in a speech given to Texas A&M, Spencer said, “This country does belong to white people, culturally, politically, socially, everything. We defined what America is.”

The agenda of groups like Alt-Right and campus clubs that are either supported by the Alt-right or providing a platform for the Alt-Right is clear.  They want to challenge college campuses for their numerous diversity and inclusion initiatives that provide a legitimate space for ideas and knowledge base that have been historically marginalized and excluded.  There is a deliberate effort to undermine the Civil Rights protections that have been given to the protected class, immigrants, women, religion, sexuality, diability etc.  At the heart of these diversity initiatives is decentering Whiteness and its relationship to power as a dominant ideology, and such a decentering is obviously offensive to those who want to “Make American White Again.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “The Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right, is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine white people and “their” civilization”

So it is no surprise that figures like Yiannopoulos, Spencer, Coulter and numerous clubs like Club Europa, Young Americans for Freedom, Turning Point are cropping up these days on college campuses to precisely challenge colleges for their numerous diversity and inclusion initiatives by using free speech to attack the historically marginalized positions, ideas, epistemologies.

While the debate on free speech is dominating most campuses like ours, we are also been told that offensive speech (if it has to be tolerated), then we must do so using “reason” and our fine skills called “civility.”  Here at Linfield, civility particularly rears its ugly head when uncomfortable ideas like systemic inequities, racisms and micro-aggressions, and polite forms of hostility and exclusions are to be confronted.

In 2015, The Nation published an article, “The New Thought Police: Why are campus administrators invoking civility to silence critical speech? by Joan W Scott. Rather than unpacking this article for you here, I would urge you to read this piece yourself (particularly if you are faculty here at Linfield)

Scott reminds us in the article by quoting social theorist Nancy Fraser that “the dissident claims of minority groups go unheard in the public sphere when they are tagged as departures from the protocols of style and decorum—dismissed as evidence of irrationality and so placed outside the realm of what is taken to be reasoned deliberation. They are, by definition, uncivil, and thus beneath contempt. Once a certain space or style of argument is identified as civil, the implication is that dissenters from it are uncivilized. “Civility” becomes a synonym for orthodoxy; “incivility” designates unorthodox ideas or behavior.”

Scott ends her article in The Nation by suggesting that “criticism—even angry criticism—is not necessarily a sign of disrespect. To point out that the meanings of words are not self-evident and that they can mask as much as they reveal is to respect language and thought. The real questions are: Who is calling for civility, and to what ends? What are the effects of policing classrooms and political forums in the name of civility? What has been the history of the invocation of that word? Equally important is the need to insist on both the meaning of free speech as defined by the First Amendment and the conventional understandings of academic freedom. “

I say all of the above to perhaps point out something that may be obvious to you.  Linfield’s biggest obstacle is not so much whether we have a right to free speech or not, but there is an urgent need to have a much broader discussion where we can explore the relationship between civility and free speech, civility and difficult dialogues, civility and offensive ideas, civility and contentious ideas, civility and one’s right to academic freedom.  There is a looming fear that if and when one speaks against our status quo (of a still very White institution) that there will be repercussions. What are these repercussions? What are we so afraid of? How can we freely speak when we are afraid of repercussions?

Perhaps we need to start thinking seriously about the role of free speech in responding to a campus climate that have historically suppressed ideas and positions of exclusions because the very people who have power continue to use “civility” as a tool to silence difficult dialogues.

Colleges like Linfield with a rise in our student, faculty and staff demographics are no longer just “White” or predominantly heterosexual, yet our hegemonic structures (that are still predominantly White) have remained unchallenged.  An attainment of diversity without making any serious attempts to shift our power structures is also a form of white supremacy. How can we use free speech to open up a space for such conversations and dialogues?

Yet as a result of our shifting demographics we have a dual imperative to serve and protect, and an ethical obligation to support, or not support, certain forms of ideas and free speech that can enter our community and produce harm to the bodies and ideas that we have willingly invited to join our community.  In the marketplace of ideas, diversity sells.  Diversity is our cultural capital.  But we also have an ethical obligation to protect the value of diversity by supporting the kinds of free speech in our classrooms, campus and the public spaces within Linfield that will not cause harm to what we value. As philosopher and philologist Judith Butler has said:

There are principles of radical democracy at stake in the kind of assemblies that I support. If a group of right-wing racists get together and say that they have been excluded from a public space that does not accommodate racists, then they are actually asking for a right to exclude others. They are trying to assemble and achieve public space for the expressed purpose of a racist and exclusionary project. That is hardly democratic in intent or in effect. (

So by all means, let’s debate free speech and even offensive free speech, but let’s also make some room for some anger and outrage as legitimate discourses and even non violent civil disobedience to exist as we debate what we value here at Linfield, what we do not value and what we cannot value and what we should not value. To do anything otherwise will put us in the wrong side of history, opening up the space for the wrong kind of justice, and if I may say, a wrong kind of inclusion.


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16 Responses to “The Place For Outrage When Free Speech Is Hate Speech: Our Mission, Our Values, Our Obligations”

  1. Richard Keefe on May 16th, 2017 4:10 am

    According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “The Alternative Right, … is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces.

    This is the same SPLC that claims that the largest category of “hate group” in the land is Black and/or Muslim.

    The company counted 201 Black and Black Muslim groups for 2016, which far outnumbers its 130 alleged Klan groups outright, and all of its alleged neo-Nazi, racist skinhead and white nationalist groups by two-to-one, respectively.

    The SPLC claims that the number of number of “hate groups” nationwide grew by 133 between 2014 and 2016. By its own accounting, 80 of those groups, or nearly two-thirds of the increase, came from Black “hate groups.”

    The SPLC also claims that its 101 anti-Muslim “hate groups” pose an existential threat, but nobody in the media seems to believe that the SPLC’s 89 Muslim “hate groups” are even newsworthy. That’s nearly a one-to-one ratio and yet no one is reporting on it.

    If the SPLC are going to be your go-to “experts” then you have to accept ALL of their claims, no matter how patently ridiculous they are.


  2. John on May 16th, 2017 8:51 am

    This is why Trump won. 😉


  3. John on May 16th, 2017 9:01 am

    “Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.” – Noam Chomsky


  4. Benjamin on May 16th, 2017 4:59 pm

    Conflating Trump, Brexit, Yiannopolus, Coulter and Young Americans for Freedom with white supremacy is exactly why people need to hear the speakers in order to disagree with them. You have demonstrated not only a lack of understanding, but the will to understand less and everyone who is curious to understand the points of view (that they often disagree with) just sees you and people with your point of view as the bigots.

    While you cite an increase in hate crimes (well, not cite but just state it), people like Yianoppolus will remind people how most of the high profile cases turned out to be hoaxes ( perpetrated by intolerant people like you who desperately want to validate their reduction of ideas and individuals to a loose ideological connections and an identities that you think deserve preferential treatment.

    I find it interesting how there was no mention of Jordan Peterson in here. I’m guessing that’s because you know how ridiculous it is to box him into the categories of villains that you painted in this piece, yet that’s exactly what happened at Linfield.

    Just please imagine for a moment that your understanding of the “alt-right” is fundamentally flawed. Perhaps there isn’t rampant racism/sexism/xenophobia, but instead, people with perfectly legitimate hesitations about mass immigration or affirmative action stopped caring about civility toward people as unwilling to listen as you. Most of the outrageous words you hear come from the trend set during Gamergate. If you haven’t looked into it yet, please do. Basically, a game journalist who got caught lying and cheating turned around and started calling any spec of criticism against them sexist, and the game journals backed her up. The response was immense open blatant outrageous [insert adjective] sexism with kernels of reminders of what exact proof they had about the lying and cheating that they were covering up. And eventually, the people who were lying had to back off because they could no longer bully people into accepting their dogma. That’s what’s happening to you and you will back off when you find out that you can’t force people to boxing people into the categories you want. People will hear Milo or Peterson or Coulter and know that you painting them as white supremacists is a bully tactic. Fewer and fewer people will back down from your bullying attempts to paint them as guilty by association with some of the most evil ideologies there are.

    Lastly, I’m reminded of the line from the movie Zootopia that I encourage you to remember, “If the world’s only gonna see a fox as shifty and untrustworthy, there’s no point trying to be anything else.”


    Mark Ogden Reply:

    I think you just defined racism.
    “People will hear Milo or Peterson or Coulter and know that you painting them as white supremacists is a bully tactic. Fewer and fewer people will back down from your bullying attempts to paint them as guilty by association with some of the most evil ideologies there are.”

    Everyone knows that these people are discriminatory and vile. What is your point? You want to pain them as saints?


  5. Ethan on May 16th, 2017 6:01 pm

    Here is a video by a trans person titled “I’m trans and I love Jordan Peterson”.

    I think this video offers an interesting perspective on the ideas discussed above and one that is often truly marginalized. Apologies if posting videos in this way is bad comment-section etiquette, though perhaps I agree with the author here that civility must sometimes be forgone in the interest of higher values.


  6. Ethan on May 16th, 2017 7:57 pm

    The problem here is that even questioning the narrative presented above is considered a form of hate speech. Apparently an affront to the humanity of all marginalized groups. The form of speech expressed in this comment is exactly the kind the author would like to silence. She would rather you not read this– better to label it hate speech and have it hidden away from you.

    Lumped in with a list of right-wing provocateurs (it is implied) is an erudite psychology professor who has developed writing programs which benefit minorities over all other groups*, is a member of a native American tribe*, has promoted the work of trans individuals and co-hosted events with trans people*, and is in no conceivable way (to me) a racist, sexist, etc.

    (if you are concerned that he may be a transphobe, i would recommend the video “I’m trans and i love Jordan Peterson,” if you would like to hear a truly marginalized voice speak honestly about their experience).

    There is a reason the author does not mention Jordan Peterson or the feminist documentarian Cassie Jaye (both of whose work the controversy at Linfield centered on). It is, I think, because these people are not racist sexist bigots, and so condemning them as such would require a kind of dishonesty too tedious and easily recognized to be seriously attempted in the open forum.

    If one wishes to maintain a false narrative it is easier to construct a false dichotomy and wage a war on ethereal strawmen than to have a meaningful exchange of ideas. Better to talk about Milo Yiannapolous than Jordan Peterson because by categorizing them together they can both be dismissed. Better yet lump in the worst dregs of the far right with a feminist’s documentary about social issues. Paint the whole thing as a malevolent assault on the humanity of all non-white males. A war against civil rights.

    This is not debate. It is mystification.

    The author does not want you to know what Jordan Peterson or Cassie Jaye actually have to say because this would reveal how false her narrative is within the context of the full complexity of a world that does not yield to dogmatic ideology, no matter how alluringly compassionate it may appear on the surface.

    * An NPR article that highlights the way Peterson’s self authoring program caused “ethnic and gender-group differences in performance among the students [to] all but disappear [in a study at Rotterdam college].”

    *An article on the Kwakwaka’wakh tribe of which Peterson, racist that he is (not), is a member. This fact could be verified on his website if needed.

    * A video titled “I’m trans and I love Jordan Peterson”:


    Mark Ogden Reply:

    So what is your definition of hate speech?


  7. John on May 17th, 2017 9:56 pm

    Professor of Vogon Poetry?


  8. Joe the Plumber on May 18th, 2017 9:38 am

    I think she’s barking up the wrong tree here. She’s pretty clearly talking about white nationalists, racists, xenophobic, and homophobic groups. Last time I checked, none of those groups were on campus. Turning Point in particular being mentioned surprises me, since that’s a known conservative group, and certainly not as far right as she claims. Young Americans for Freedom is also another group that’s historically been further left than she claims, meaning that it’s actually more centrist. It was started in 1960 and was a coalition between Republicans and Libertarians. Certainly it’s not this ridiculous and desperate explanation about being Alt-Right. As for her rant on freedom of speech, read the Constitution. It doesn’t say “can abridge free speech within limits,” it says “Congress will make no law… abridging the freedom of speech,”
    Touting the Southern Poverty Law Center as her backup and waving it around as proof is just sad, seeing as how the Center is perhaps one of the most biased organizations in leftist history in the United States. It looks like she doesn’t even understand the Alt-Right, and embarrasses herself further by assuming the mantlet of every person on campus who considers themselves decent. Sorry Reshmi, but your attempted hit on the peaceful conservatives on campus didn’t come close. It looks like you could use some education, which is ironic considering you’re a professor.


  9. Lucas Carter on May 18th, 2017 12:06 pm

    Hi, Young Americans for Liberty outgoing chapter president here, this was a well written article and you bring up many excellent points. Ultimately, you and I have the same intentions which you brought up here: To be able to discuss controversial issues. When you say, “How can we freely speak when we are afraid of repercussions?” it shows that you and I are fighting for the same cause. That is the reason I started the club after all.

    Early in the op-ed you speak of civility as though it’s a bad thing, you reference an article from The Nation that suggests, “Who is calling for civility, and to what ends?” As you’d imagine, I have beef with this. While I’m all for questioning things, it’s odd for you to encourage people to not be civil, to not be able to hear out the ideas of other people before jumping to neo-reactionary conclusions, and to ultimately generate an echo-chamber culture where such conclusions mound on each other and keeps entire groups and segments out of the conversation. Over this semester, for example, you’ve been beating the strawman argument to death to combat my club’s efforts to be able to discuss ideas different from liberalism. I could stand here and list the ways you’ve done so and marginalized students in the process but I know you’d use the opportunity to threaten a lawsuit.

    A few paragraphs later you equate Turning Point USA (Which just started a chapter at Linfield), Young Americans for Freedom, and Club Europa (Which I couldn’t find on Google, correct me if I’m wrong on their existence.), to actual white supremacists such as Richard Spencer. We both speak of civility in our discussions and making such wild accusations just for having a slightly different opinion from yours is what generates such a hostile environment. Just because there’s people that favor a smaller government, the rights of individuals, a free market, and non-interventionist foreign policy doesn’t mean they’re racists. Diversity doesn’t just refer to skin color, gender, and other forms of identity, it also refers to ideas. If you’re unable to discuss things and you must rely on logical fallacies to support your arguments, are you truly preaching diversity?

    We live in a world where logic and reason can lead us to more educated conclusions rather than relying on emotion. When the racists show their colors, we should strike them down with logic and reason and not by keeping them out of the conversation where they can continue to foster themselves in their own echo-chambers. If my own club is in error and you struck us down with logic and reason, then so be it. To be able to discuss ideas with logic and reasoning is the path to truth.

    To conclude, yes, racism and white supremacy is bad, but equating and associating students you disagree with to that notion is out of line and entirely false. You go on to use these strawman arguments to combine your logic of not using civility in discussion to silence said groups. To encourage no civility against groups you strawmanned into a misrepresentative and delusional image that you perpetuate is manipulative, exclusionary, and doesn’t represent the ideals of free speech in the academic setting to reach a logical and fair conclusion through elimination of unjust thinking. You are the reason I started the club and I’m more than happy to see that the campus environment is discussing these matters in a civil way rather than the way you’d prefer.


  10. Parker Wells on May 18th, 2017 12:27 pm

    “If a group of right-wing racists get together and say that they have been excluded from a public space that does not accommodate racists, then they are actually asking for a right to exclude others. They are trying to assemble and achieve public space for the expressed purpose of a racist and exclusionary project.”

    Is this really how you think of us? Is this what you tell my peers during your in-class rallies? I think the biggest source of hatred on Linfield campus is in your heart, Reshmi. The only person committed to an ‘exclusionary project’ is yourself.


    chill out Reply:

    dude not everything is about you calm down


  11. Sean A. on May 19th, 2017 10:13 am

    In fact, freedom of speech does mean a blanket permission to say anything you want. The only caveat is force and susequent violence. If you are violently saying something and the other person or people cannot move, either by your force or some other force, the conseuences can be considered a crime. The rule in this case is the outcome, not the speech itself. Such as the most overused term of yelling “fire” in a theatre. Yelling such a diatribe is in fact not a crime, its the subsequent acknoledgement and action of those around you, the reasons why you said it are examined, and the future actions taken, and results of those actions called int question. If in fact there is a fire, and you assist people in getting out the theatre without causing harm, you are considered a hero, not criminal.

    So-called “hate speech” and that speech which makes someone “feel bad” about themselves had to be protected under free speech laws. Its just that nobody gets to force someone to listen, nor are they required to give those people a platform. If the platform exists, and its public, then anyone gets to use it. Simple, case closed.


  12. Mark Ogden on May 20th, 2017 1:20 am

    Lucas and Parker,
    I hope you realize that you are missing the points in this article. It is clear from your comments that you assume the article targets you and your clubs and there is no mention of your club in this article. And yes, Turning Point is a problem due to the Professor Watchlist they maintain. 99% of faculty members in most liberal institutions are against a club like this. As an educator I can tell you that this club threatens academic freedom which is very serious. In fact, it would be really odd if Prof-Ballerstadt would support this club. In fact I can almost guarantee you that 98% of your faculty do not and will not support this club.
    Also, what Prof-Ballerstadt is writing is “her” free speech and for that matter quite a brilliant logic she is drawing here between the rise of the extreme right (identitarian politics) and the attack on diversity initiative, to an entire discourse on civility that is being used to silence ideas that are anti-establishement, anti-justice, anti-capital, anti-status quo. If you are smart you may want to learn how to use the kind of arguments she has used, providing evidence and logic to make the case. But what you guys are doing instead is personally attacking her and exposing your own insecurities, anger — kind of lashing out. Besides, as students do you have no respect anymore these days? Is this how you talk to your professors? And Parker, I hate to say this, but you are making yourself very small by the kinds of attacks you are launching here. In fact, you do not sound like someone who have the ability to critically think, you have become your own echo chamber and although I do not know you, but you sound like someone who needs some mental help. What a waste of a perfectly good education! And Lucas, I hope you can hear your own male White privilege speaking in your response. Everything you are saying is not followed by evidence but by your own emotions (which is fine) but then you discount emotions and say that we can strike down a racist by using reason. What about those people in the room that may be quite diminished or distraught as a result of a racist in the room who spews racist ideas and thoughts? How do you think your friends that are say African Americans feel when someone tells them that they are wild or like savages, or they do not belong in this country because they are black? or who cares that black people are shot because their lives matter less? Besides Lucas, you have completely missed the central thesis and the unfolding argument in Prof.Ballerstadt’s article. Need some reading help?
    Lastly, I do not think the point of the article is that your agree with her. And the point of the article is to not scream. The point of the article is that anger and outrage using the kinds of words and logic (not violence) is also a legitimate responses to White supremacy that tries to take down diversity initiatives. If this opinion piece is getting under your skin, then I think the piece is effective. May be you want to check your privilege, check your own bias and racism here and begin to understand why so many people on your campus and in this country are against people like you and your exclusionary projects. Are your projects not exclusionary? And just learn how to RESPECT your professors. And for your information (since it is quite obvious that you have never taken a class from Prof Ballerstadt) — she has had thousands of students and most of them love her for her smartness, outspokenness, her sense of humor, her guts. Even those that have disagreed with her (because I know my brother did disagree with her many times. She encourages it) like my brother hold her in their highest respect. You can say whatever you want, but her fan club his huge and she has a large following. Perhaps one day when you can become as smart as she is, you may have a following too — but I am having trouble seeing signs of much smartness yet from you guys. Keep working at it.


    Parker Wells Reply:

    I honestly can’t tell if you’re trolling half the time, Mark. You’re not doing Reshmi’s argument any favors with these weird, insulting comments.


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The Place For Outrage When Free Speech Is Hate Speech: Our Mission, Our Values, Our Obligations