Campus Free Speech Realities And Myths | Lee Rowland | TEDxUniversityofNevada
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Campus Free Speech Realities And Myths | Lee Rowland | TEDxUniversityofNevada


Translator: Madison Shirley
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven 2017 was a hell of a year
for the First Amendment. Nowhere was more central
to this culture war than the campuses
and universities across America, including right here,
at the University of Nevada, Reno. Two UNR students became infamous
for their speech in the past year, found themselves embroiled in two
of the biggest free speech controversies of the past couple of years. Student Peter Cytanovic
became the face of white nationalism when a picture of him snarling,
holding a tiki torch at the Unite the Right Rally
in Charlottesville went viral. On the complete opposite end
of the political spectrum, if you can call it that, graduate Colin Kaepernick
went on to the NFL and used his position to highlight
police brutality and racial injustice, by taking a knee
during the National Anthem. Both men became incredibly
controversial for their speech. There were calls and campaigns for both
men to be expelled for their opinions. But regardless, whether you agree with one
of them, or both of them, or neither, the First Amendment protects
both of those men and their opinions from censorship and retaliation
by the government. That’s a good thing,
and I want to tell you why. It’s becoming more common for me to hear that we should have
lower protections for speech, that specifically, we should
criminalize hate speech. I hear this from the left a lot. I think a lot of progressives envision a world where people
like Colin Kaepernick can take a knee
and protest of racial injustice, without fear of retaliation
from the government, without fear that the President
will pressure the NFL to fire him. But they also want to live in a world
where a government school like UNR can expel a student like Peter Cytanovic
for his hateful views. That is a fantasy. And more than that, it’s dangerous. I’m a progressive, it’s not hard for me to pick between
white nationalism and racial justice. One is abhorrent, one is an overdue
demand for equal rights. But what would happen if I gave
a government the right to decide which of those men
was too hateful to speak? President Trump
is a pretty useful barometer. He called the marchers
at Charlottesville “very fine people,” while reserving his ire
for black football players who take a knee as “sons of bitches.” Your hate speech may not
be the government’s idea of hate speech. I sure as hell know, it’s not mine. But even if you happen
to agree with Trump, can you be confident that
the next President, the next government, will agree with your world view? You shouldn’t be. That’s why, above all,
I am an anti-authoritarian. I know that the U.S. government
has a long history of wielding its raw power
against the vulnerable communities that speak truth to that power, against those who seek
to change the status quo. And because I want every student
to be able to take a knee without fear of government censorship, I am a true believer
in the First Amendment. But even as a First Amendment attorney, I find a lot of the common tropes
and myths about the First Amendment really unsatisfying. So, I wanna go through
three of these myths, dust them off, and hopefully in the process, we’ll come up with three practical rules
for exercising your free speech rights, powerfully and strategically. So the first one is one I suspect
we all learned in Kindergarten – if you remember your nursery rhymes,
please feel free to join me. Sticks and stones may break my bones
but words will never hurt me. Does anyone, as an adult,
actually believe this? It’s manifestly untrue. I’m a free speech attorney precisely
because I believe that words matter; it’s ludicrous to protect free speech
by denying its very power. So, why do we lie to kids, right? Why do we fabricate this thing for them? Well, it’s because humans of all ages
can be vicious; it’s just true. And when a kid is at the receiving end
of injustice, a taunt, hateful language, we want that kid
to be empowered, not diminished. In February, notorious troll
Milo Yiannopoulos had a planned speech at UC Berkeley. Students and others
in the community went nuts. There were protests, there were riots,
things were set on fire. The administration cancelled his talk. In April, there was a repeat, same thing,
except this time, it was Ann Coulter. She was going to speak, school officials said,
“There’s going to be riots.” They cancelled her talk. Those two individuals, Ann and Milo, man, they became martyrs. They got to take on the roll of victims
of liberal censorship. They went on media tours,
the media ate it up. They got more attention
for being silenced than they ever did for trying to peddle
their actual substantive views. So, I think it’s helpful to think
of professional, provocateurs and trolls as we would those schoolyard bullies. Yeah, their words can hurt,
there’s no point in denying that. But the better question is,
how do we respond to that, right? And a troll, a provocateur,
wants you to censor them. That’s part of the goal,
it feeds into their power, it gives them something else to sell. So, we don’t have to march to that tune. You don’t have to play that role. And we can think of them,
like these bullies, yeah their words hurt,
but there’s also power in sass. There’s power in refusing
to be goaded into a fight or to play the role of censor. So, don’t do it. But some words wound in ways
that are different from others. Which brings us to myth number two. I hear this one a lot,
particularly online. We all know that hate speech
isn’t protected by the First Amendment. Not so. As that anecdote about Trump
hopefully made you think, hate speech can be
in the eye of the beholder, ear of the behearer, I guess,
if that’s a word. Just this week in Spain, a man was arrested
for the hate crime – this is real – of calling cops “slackers” on Facebook. Police are covered
under the Spanish Hate Crime Law. That’s what criticizing
your government looks like in a country without a First Amendment. But we don’t have to protect speech
just out of paranoia that our government will warp
what we think speech and hate speech are, there’s also an upshot. In the late 1960’s, a KKK leader named Charles Brandenburg
was arrested on criminal charges of incitement to violence
for holding a KKK rally. The speech was as abhorrent,
as vicious, racist as you might imagine. But the KKK’s lawyers took it
all the way up to the Supreme Court. And they challenged this crime, said he had a free speech right
to be a KKK member, and the Supreme Court thought about it
and said, “You’re right.” Before we allow the government
to punish you for your speech, it has to pass such a high bar, there has to be an immediate
and specific risk of actual physical violence
to a real person. And this KKK rally, well,
it was a group of white racists, but there wasn’t anyone around that they were intending
to actually engage in violence against. That case, in a vacuum,
might be tough to swallow. I think particularly
if you’re a person of color. But it’s not the end of the story. At about the same time, a lion of the Civil Rights Movement
named Charles Evers was giving a huge speech
to a gathering of NAACP supporters, who had come together to boycott
white-owned racist businesses that didn’t allow black Americans
to come into their business. And as he’s giving his speech,
Evers gets worked up and really passionate and he says, “I’ll wring the damn neck
of anybody who breaks this boycott.” So, what’s he done, right? He’s fantasized
about some future violence, it’s hypothetical,
he’s not pointing at Bob there, right? So, the Brandenburg case
has just come out of the Supreme Court, and the NAACP’s lawyers look at that
and they say, “Well, this can’t be right. How can a KKK leader get
a ‘get out of jail’ free card, but our Civil Rights guy, Mr. Evers,
is being sued for incitement by the same white-owned businesses
that he was protesting?” Mr. Evers challenged these charges too. And he went all the way up
to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court said, “Well, I guess we’re constrained
by that Brandenburg case to give you your free speech rights too.” I want to be clear, by the way,
that I don’t see anything equivalent between the KKK and the NAACP. But the court is an odd place – it’s a bit stripped of context in history,
it’s a kind of bastion of privilege – and all they boiled it down to was, “Is this theoretical future violence? Or is there an immediate and specific
risk of harm to a real person?” And they said, “From that point of view,
these look the same.” Now, I know a lot of people
are skeptical that in practice, the rights that are extended
to people like a KKK leader actually trickle down to somebody
like an NAACP leader. They’re not wrong to be skeptical. Our country has always taken a while
to distribute its rights equally among its citizenry, right? Think of the right to vote. Did we all get it at the same time,
regardless of sex, regardless of race? Absolutely not. Or even in today’s world, do you think your constitutional rights
at arrest look the same regardless of your race? Your right to carry a gun? Do you think that looks the same
whether you’re black or you’re white? Again, no. But is the answer to eliminate or lessen
the very constitutional protections that allow us to hold the government
accountable when it violates our rights? Hell no. Instead, making sure that constitutional
rights are evenly distributed is a process, right? And it’s our job,
the First Amendment is no different. So, when the Supreme Court,
when the powers that be, give that right to somebody
like Brandenburg, a KKK leader, it’s our job, Civil Rights leaders,
those who believe in equal rights, in justice, to ratchet everybody up
to that same level of protection for constitutional rights. And that’s precisely what the NAACP did. And that’s all of our job too. That’s what I do,
as a free speech attorney, and that’s what you
need to do as students. You need to make sure
that these theoretical rules filter down on the ground. So are students up for it? That brings us to our third
and final myth. “Today’s students are just snowflakes.” I hear it all the time. Usually meant as an insult, by the way,
as beautiful as snowflakes are. So, because of the First Amendment, public schools and universities
can not ban people from campus, simply because their views are hateful. So that means that over the past year, black and Jewish students
have had to leave their dorm rooms and walk to class passing by people
who have called for their extermination. It means that women students
have had to walk by speakers on campus who call feminism a cancer. LGBT students have had
to walk by people saying, “Transgenderism is a medical disorder.” No adult has to go to work and walk by people saying
they’re less than human or that they shouldn’t exist. I don’t think students are snowflakes,
I think they’re badasses. Because they bear the brunt
of that First Amendment on campus, where these professional
provocateurs come, right? Now, when I say that silencing
your political opponents isn’t the answer, it’s not because I think that’s weak,
it’s because I think that’s unstrategic. So, if silencing your enemies
isn’t an answer, what does empowerment look like
in the First Amendment? Well sometimes, it’s just sheer numbers. The week after Charlottesville,
a group of people planned a rally on Boston Common that they termed
“The Free Speech Rally.” They were alt-right folks,
and this is a week after Charlottesville. Only a handful
of permit-holders showed up. But 40,000+ members
of the Massachusetts community and from across the country,
engaged in a counter protest ringing Boston Common,
standing strong, right? Sending a very powerful
message of resistance together. That’s a blizzard of snowflakes, right? There’s no weakness in that. But sometimes, just a single person
will make a difference. One of my favorite stories
from the last couple of years, one of my favorite free speech victories
from the last few years, is a musician who was really appalled
that the KKK was planning to march in his hometown of Charleston. And so, using the tools at his disposal,
he got out his sousaphone. That’s one of these big
brass instruments, BOM-BOM. And he got out of the street
and he got next to the KKK, and he just oompa, oompa,
oompa, oompa-ed along with them. (Laughter) It’s amazing, you should look up
the video, it’s worth watching. And without saying a single word,
he stripped these fascists bare. They couldn’t even bear to go on
marching, they were so humiliated. You can’t keep up
a straight face of fascism with a goofy tuba lined behind you,
it’s just hard to do. So look, I believe in the First Amendment
fundamentally, first and foremost because I know
it’s the greatest tool we have to keep the government
out of regulating the conversations that spark every change in the world. If you want to keep having conversations
that change the world, you should embrace
this First Amendment too, messiness and all. And even though those three myths
might not be true, I hope they started to reveal
a few real nuggets of truth about how we can strategically exercise
our powerful First Amendment rights. Number one: Know your history. Know that when rights are extended
to the powerful and privileged, that it’s our job to make sure
that everybody benefits from those rights. Understand that the same First Amendment
that first extended to a KKK member was used strategically
by Civil Rights leaders to cover the NAACP leader as well. That’s a success story
and we have to keep doing it. Number two: Don’t try to silence
your way out of a debate. As we’ve seen from Free Speech Week,
as we’ve seen from the Free Speech Rally, people trying to co-op
the term Free Speech just feeds them power. We can’t let them do that. Free Speech as a concept,
its power is in its indivisibility, its equal for the KKK leader
and the NAACP leader alike, right? So don’t dance to that tune. You don’t have to give
the provocateur the censorship she’s desperately hoping
that you give her. So that brings us to number three. Dance to your own tune. Figure out for yourself
when you go to a counter protest, in numbers or alone with your tuba. Figure out when you hold an alternative
and more loving event across campus. Figure out when you think there are ideas that are just fundamentally
unworthy of debate. And the way that you figure out
how to handle these conflicts, how to handle speech that you abhor,
can be a great guideline for how you handle conflict
throughout the rest of your life. My name is Lee Rowland. I’m an unabashed progressive,
I’m a skeptic, I’m an anti-authoritarian. For all of those reasons, I believe in a robust
and indivisible First Amendment. Join me. Thank you. (Applause)

27 Comments

  • zero g templar

    12:17 she says that students are not snowflakes, what world is she living in? they openly block speakers whom they disagree with, they use the hecklers to silence free speech, because they have been deluded into believing that they are entitled, and should not be exposed to anything that might offend them, they are unable to deal with an opposing opinions..

  • 81dismal

    I've given this quite a bit of thought, and I might be alone here, but outside of the small group of people I hold dear, I'm certain no words really can't hurt me, there's no insult, no name or characterization, no slur or demeaning remark, no words can hurt me. I know who I am, I know what I believe, and I know who and what I care about, nothing said by another person has the power to take anything from me. Watching fearful children attempting to undermine the free speech rights of all Americans is something I disagree with, but it's not something that hurts me. In America people have the right to say they don't want rights.

  • mustangbeauty4

    Not gonna lie, when she said the “Sticks and Stones” part, I completely believe it. I can’t be hurt by simple words lol.

  • Johnny Bump

    If I interrupted a Tedx talk with my tuba – I'd be escorted out of the event (rightfully) – and maybe even charged with some kind of Civil Rights violation (something I wish these left wing people would be charged with).

  • Mark Str8

    The kkk is a counter intelligence government op designed to smear nationalist movements with a broad brush.This was a great speech I wish all the commies new how cherished the right to free speech is.

  • P VV

    I am neither a progressive or a conservative, but I respect everything she said. She is smart, she is correct, and she knows what she is talking about. I like that she is also a skeptic who knows how important it is to limit the power of the government.

  • Alan Roberts

    Hi mr. Jones have you stopped beating your wife?
    It's like who's against it?… As long as I agree with it and it agrees with me.
    Greed and selfishness is at the root of our problems.

  • Dan Micalizzi

    And YouTube deleted my comment about Colin Kaepernick but the idea was it was his despicable act he was on the job and they have every right to terminate his employment just like a sponsor for a company can be terminated for doing something that doesn't reflect the values of the company or job just like you. What Colin Kaepernick did would be the equivalent of me. Putting you in the center of the football field taking you right in the spot and saying that was because of police brutality it was misguided it was offencive and a terrible action he should not have done you should know better

  • Dave Davis

    I can hardly wait to see how Trump's executive order on 1st amendment enforcement is going to be used on campus. Which schools are going to lose there federal funding for suppressing free speech on campus. I am curious to see how systemic the suppression of free speech is on campus. I had history teacher that was self proclaimed Marxist and felt we should have everyone in the United States work in the fields 3 months a year, regardless of class or rank, like Cuba. I argued with her in class saying that, even this practice was corrupted, because Cuban political officers, doctors and the "upper" class were exempted or worked their 3 months during the winter and not summer or during the harvest. I knew this because, my roommates girl friend was from Cuba, her parents would tell her all the horror stories, we get her drunk and she would rant in splangish, I digress. She tried to give a me a D for class participation, which was supposed to be based on frequency, not on agreement I brought it up with the Dean and had it adjusted. I dont think conservative students would be as lucky as I was. The only flaw with her talk, her progressive movement considers conservationism, free markets, personal liberty and the pursuit of happiness(smaller government) to be equivalent to the KKK, and therefore, to be tuba'd. So, I am impressed with her, but her cohorts will continue to lump any speech that is not in lock step with the Socialist DNC to be hate speech and to be silenced or labeled with one of the phobia,s so they dont have to discuss the ideas and facts, in a rational manner. Finally, I find students are snow flakes, because this gal and most of her kind have taught most students that being offended, or having their feelings hurt, gives them some kind of moral high ground, it doesn't. Yet, they use their feelings to justify acting like, if not being fascist. Just look at the numerous you tube videos, showing the snowflakes trying silence conservative speakers, not trying to debate them. I do not see any you tube videos or any media evidence showing the on campus gauntlet she describes, put up by conservatives, against LABFQ, Minority or Progressives, its completely the opposite. I felt that it was a bit disingenuous of her, to make it seem that a majority of college students walk in fear on campus, no they dont, they are ensconced in a leftist snow globe now. So, I like her theory of free speech for everyone, including and especially hate speech, but I want to see if the left can put it in practice. I am crossing my fingers. P.S. go ahead and call me names I do not give a blank, because I also believe in the 2nd amendment, which is real right that keeps governments honest, if they fear their citizens. You could not have the 1st if do not have the 2nd. That is another topic for another ted talk.

  • tomkat books

    Kaepernick's is not a free speech issue. He signed a contract to abide by a certain code of conduct. He is required to act a certain way on the football field. He broke that contract.

    Outside the football field Kaepernick is yappin' all he wants about his issues — no one is restricting his free speech.

  • Kyle Kastler

    Using avoidance of government censorship to springboard into censorship of opinions that offend students on campus. She also conflates any speech that is offensive, or "hate speech", with an incitement to violence. Take the KKK supreme court case. Notice how no examples of the speech given at the KKK rally was given but she remembered exactly what was said by the NAACP member. She just assumed that the standard rhetoric of a KKK rally incites violence so the cases were identical. Not saying KKK rallies dont incite violence but without all the details it's hard to determine if the SC made the right decision.

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