Administrators, faculty and students discussed free speech, its limits and recent bias incidents during an open forum held Tuesday, March 8.
John Ambacher, a political science professor, said the United States has an “absolutist view” in regards to speech. “It can be offensive, it can be demeaning, it can be degrading … but it’s protected.”
He said there are a few exceptions to free speech, such as defamation and incitement speech. Defamation is a false statement made which is directed toward an individual, while incitement speech is when words are used in connection to an illegal activity.
“Hate speech to me is like the canary in the coal mine. It’s symptomatic of larger systemic issues in our society that we have to address,” said Ambacher.
He recalled the bias incident reports submitted in Fall 2015 concerning the Confederate flag, and said he believed the situation was handled well by the University.
“I thought the community did deal with it. They did confront it, which is what you have to do,” he said.
The Gatepost Editor-in-Chief Michael B. Murphy asked Sean Huddleston, chief officer of diversity, inclusion and community engagement, about an email he sent out to students and faculty concerning one of the bias incident reports.
Huddleston said the report was made in regards to a Confederate flag sticker on a student’s laptop. In the email, he provided information about the Confederate flag, and why some people find it offensive.
The purpose of the email, according to Huddleston, was to “share that when things come up, it’s good to have conversation. Sometimes it’s going to be intellectual debate. Sometimes it’s going to be a little bit of a heavier discourse, but that was the intent.”
“An anonymous Gmail account” forwarded the email to “a number of media outlets connected to particular views,” said Huddleston, which led to the email becoming national news.
He said he received “extremely racist comments and statements” directed towards himself and his family after his email went viral.
Following an article that appeared in The MetroWest Daily News which stated the University had never banned the Confederate flag, the story shifted to focus on the resources provided for bystanders, according to Huddleston.
“The story became we were referring our students to counseling because they viewed a Confederate flag,” he said.
The two students involved in the report were able to have an educational conversation about the issue on their own, according to Huddleston.
He said the person who displayed the flag did not understand why it could be viewed as offensive, and so it became a “teachable moment.”
He added the situation was “very uncomfortable for the entire University,” but “Universities are a place where we become uncomfortable. When we become uncomfortable, that’s when we learn.”
Susan Dargan, dean of social and behavioral sciences, said there is an expectation that people can discuss these issues and different points of view on a college campus.
“When I think about the Confederate flag issue we’ve had this year, that was really hurtful to a lot of people, but it was also a learning opportunity for a lot of people,” she said, adding there were a number of students who did not know the meaning and history behind the flag.
Murphy asked if the University ever put out a statement regarding the email, and if it would do so in similar situations in the future.
Huddleston said the University chose not to respond to the media outlets which created a “false narrative,” and only shared information with outlets which report factual stories.
One student asked what the definition of a bias incident is.
Huddleston said a bias incident is one which does not rise to the level of a hate crime, but is still offensive and derogatory. He added it is usually directed toward an individual or particular group based on their identity.
FSU has a team which reviews the bias incident report, said Huddleston, and speaks with the person who reported the incident. He added sometimes, after reviewing the complaint, the team determines the situation was not a bias incident.
Lorretta Holloway, vice president for enrollment and student development, said before the bias incident report system was instituted, some students believed the University’s silence in regards to hate speech was “complicit to that particular view or attitude.”
She said the bias incident report system is an “opportunity” for students to speak out.
Ambacher said there is no “legal avenue” to deal with hate speech. “People have to have avenues, or individuals, they can go to when these issues arise. They have to feel like there’s a support system.”
He asked audience members what they would do as the FSU president if they received a report from a student who overheard two other students having a hateful conversation in the privacy of their dorm room.
One student said it is “problematic” to report people for their opinions.
An audience member said the president could turn the situation into a “teachable moment” instead of “policing behavior.”
He said the president would need to explain to the students involved “there is a paper-thin line between talk, which is constitutionally protected, and action, which is not.”
He added the students might not be aware that their conversation was potentially harmful and could be heard by others. “I think it’s worth giving them the benefit of the doubt.”
Ambacher offered another hypothetical scenario in which a student submited a paid advertisement to The Gatepost suggesting that the Holocaust never happened.
He asked the audience if they would run the advertisement as editors of The Gatepost.
One student said she would not run the advertisement, and she would report the student who submitted it.
Another audience member said he would run the advertisement. “I think it’s clear that what you run doesn’t necessarily reflect what you believe.”
Another forum attendee said he would run the advertisement alongside an educational article about the Holocaust.
Huddleston said dialogue and conversation are “essential.” He added some individuals may not feel comfortable speaking at large events such as the free speech forum or the Black Lives Matter Teach In Town Hall Meeting, which is why small group discussion in residence halls and classrooms is necessary.
He added, “What we’re trying to do as an institution, and we’re all pitching in, is build a culture where we can trust and respect. Trust we’re in a safe environment and we can respect each other even if it’s a different opinion. That’s not an easy thing to do.”