There is an interesting back and forth going on right now between two great advocates for student rights, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and StudentActivism.net. Both seem to agree that offensive speech on campus needs to be protected. At issue is whether it must also be condemned. Roger Shibley of FIRE says no, Angus Johnston of Student Activism says yes.

Both make very interesting arguments and raise interesting points. Broadly I believe, yes, offensive speech should be both protected and condemned. I am routinely shocked by how many people seek to excuse racist comments, jokes and stereotypes by saying “oh, its just a joke, I’m not racist.” Just because you’ve never lynched someone doesn’t mean you aren’t racist.

For those of us in the movement against ageism, we know how no one thinks twice about making offensive comments about age. No one, surely not NYRA, would support banning ageist comments, but undoubtedly the social acceptability of ageist thoughts and comments allows ageist laws and actions to persist. If we believe that all people should be seen as individuals not as stereotypes of their race, age, sex, sexual identity, faith and the like then we need to speak up when we see someone diminish another by talking about them as a stereotype. It is often hard to muster the courage, but through our silence we endorse the offensive speech and make it more socially acceptable.

To step back from the broad idea of condemning offensive speech, the particulars here are more nuanced, which is why this post is more of a question than a statement. I am interested to hear what others have to say. Roger Shibley contends that FIRE’s only objective is protecting free speech and to spend time also condemning speech not only pulls them away from their mission but alienates the potential victims of censorship it seeks to help. Angus Johnston believes that they weren’t neutral on the offensive speech, they were excusing or supporting it. He believes such a tone causes many to see FIRE as a conservative organization instead of non-partisan and could narrow their support. As I said, it is an interesting debate from both directions.

The debate began, as such debates often do, with someone posting something offensive on the Internet. In this case it was a white UCLA student posting an anti-Asian rant on YouTube:

In response, the student was investigated by the school, condemned by the chancellor and was threatened. FIRE then came to her defense. Angus Johnson claimed FIRE had a responsibility to denounce offensive speech even as they protect it from censorship. Roger Shibley shot back to say their job is to be neutral and not take sides beyond the side of free speech. Angus Johnson responded that they weren’t just neutrally defending her right to speak but defending what she said as well. And… unless I missed something, I believe that is where it stands now. So what do you think?