Several students, including GW Law student Samantha Ames (below), recently proposed the adoption of a new policy concerning events at the law school which include speakers from identified Hate Groups. Below, you will find commentary on the issue from both Samantha and Michael Porcello, SBA Director of Minority Affairs. The two distinct views of these students are provided here in the interest of promoting a more informed student body and community at large. The original memorandum raising the issue, circulated among the faculty, is included in a separate post on the homepage, entitled Faculty Consider Proposed Hate Group Policy.
-Nota Bene Staff
Proposed Speaker Policy Will Stifle Academic Discussion, Not Hate Speech
By Michael Porcello
On Monday, March 19, the Student Senate of the GW SBA voted by majority to endorse a petition brought forward by an unaffiliated group of students. This petition advocates a change in the law school’s policy related to guest-speakers, proposing that certain extra steps be taken when inviting speakers to the law school from organizations designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as hate groups or extremist groups. I am writing today to express my concerns with this policy and the effect it would have on our school and its programming.
As an out gay man, I have had the unfortunate experience of being the target of hate speech. Black’s Law Dictionary defines hate speech as, “[s]peech that carries no meaning other than the expression of hatred for some group, such as a particular race, esp[ecially] in circumstances in which the communication is likely to provoke violence.” Such language impermissibly injures both the individuals attacked and the community at large while contributing nothing to academic discussion or debate. I firmly believe that such language has no place within the law school or on our campus.
However, the policy endorsed by the SBA does little to prevent the dissemination of hate speech at our law school. Instead, it stifles academic discussion. Among other measures, the policy requires that events including a speaker from a designated hate group make explicit note of the speaker’s hate group affiliation by printing a disclaimer on all publicity materials and reading aloud the disclaimer while introducing the speaker at an event. Such a requirement would do little more than publicly shame these speakers for their affiliations.
By regulating speakers rather than their speech, the policy sets an over-inclusive standard that assumes that a speaker’s affiliation dictates the content of his or her speech. However, it is not certain, or even likely, that speakers from organizations designated as hate groups will use hate speech while at the law school. The policy is also under-inclusive in its failure to recognize that individuals not affiliated with hate groups could and might use destructive and hateful language while speaking on our campus. In short, the policy is poorly fashioned to achieve its purported goal of limiting hate speech.
While speakers from these organizations may elect to continue to participate in our panels, it is more likely that they will forgo the public embarrassment and decline our invitations. This would limit students’ access to diverse points of view and would hurt our school’s reputation as a center for acceptance and learning. I believe that we can only fight bigotry and intolerance by reckoning with and challenging it head-on. This policy robs the student body of the invaluable opportunity to hear certain speakers, challenge their logic, and grow as students, advocates, and attorneys.
Most importantly, this policy sets the dangerous precedent of judging an individual based on assumptions stemming from his or her affiliations. I pride myself on attending a university renowned for its diversity and unabashed acceptance of all students, faculty, and guests. I worry about the message such a policy sends to students and potential applicants – will their views be accepted on our campus? Will they be judged, shamed, or silenced for belonging to or agreeing with organizations that have unpopular viewpoints? In its effort to combat hate speech, this policy may inadvertently make some students feel that their points of view are unwelcome. That is a message I cannot endorse.
While hate speech has no place on our campus, this policy is an inadequate solution to prevent student exposure to this kind of speech. While failing to adequately address the problem, the policy ostracizes certain speakers based on assumptions about the content of their speech and limits the positive academic discourse that we, as future lawyers, should be fighting to encourage. I urge the SBA and student activists responsible for this policy to return to the drawing board and draft a policy that combats hate speech on campus without compromising the academic integrity of the law school’s programming – and its reputation.
Michael Porcello is third year who has worked for a number of LGBT non-profits, and serves as board member on the law school’s LGBT organization, Lambda Law. He also currently serves as the SBA’s Director of Minority Affairs.
Meeting Hate Speech with More Speech: Setting the Record Straight on the Proposed Hate Group Policy
By Samantha Ames
Earlier this month, an incident on the GW Law campus involving a hate group prompted several students and faculty members to draft a policy ensuring our students are both free to speak their minds and protected from harm. Since then, there has been a lively debate on campus, but there have also been a number of misconceptions floating around the discourse. As one of the policy drafters, as well as the student involved in that incident, I’d like to take a moment to set the record straight and explain what is, in the end, a fairly conservative response to a fairly serious problem.
On February 29, 2012 GW Law School and Lambda Law held a panel on marriage equality in the courts. One of the panelists opposed to same-sex marriage was a representative of the Family Research Council (FRC), an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a hate group since 2010. Though their name would indicate that they research families, the FRC’s modus operandi is to make false, widely discredited claims about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in order to foster the fear that ultimately benefits their political agenda. While the American Psychological Association no longer classifieds homosexuality as a mental illness and recognizes that ”ex-gay” therapy is harmful, the FRC still claims that LGBT people are trying to destroy society by molesting and recruiting children and should be cured of their affliction.
After the event, another FRC representative, Peter Sprigg, confronted me about a question I’d asked about the group’s problematic official statement on “homosexuality.” For the past ten years, Mr. Sprigg has made claims that all gay people are mentally ill, that pedophilia is more common among gay men than consensual adult relationships, that he would rather deport gay Americans than allow LGBT refugees to seek asylum in the United States, and that homosexuality itself should be criminalized. Mr. Sprigg primarily supports his allegations with discredited and methodologically dishonest science and has been publicly criticized by the authors of legitimate studies for grossly misrepresenting their work.
Mr. Sprigg is much larger than me, much older than me, and was under the impression that he could easily put me in my place. Over the course of our conversation, he very calmly called me evil, a sinner, and a danger to children, among other things. What he didn’t know is that I’ve spent the last three years doing legal work for LGBT nonprofits, and I had every statute, study, and statistic I needed to rebut his arguments.
I made myself a target by asking a question, but I wasn’t the only one at that event who expressed a similar opinion. Mr. Sprigg could easily have gone after any of the others. That person might have been kicked out of their home or forced into “ex-gay” clinics; it might have been someone who had been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, as GLSEN estimates over 1 in 5 LGBT students have been by the time they get to law school. After that night, it took me some time to feel safe again on my own campus.
In response to the incident, several students and faculty members got together to draft a proposed Policy on Hate and Extremist Groups. We designed it to encourage free speech, while giving notice and protection to the student body. The policy does three basic things:
- Provides notice to the student body that there will be a hate group on campus;
- Asks event organizers to budget for campus security (the same way they would if they wanted to serve alcohol); and
- Ensures that no student is required to attend the event for class credit.
The policy is not a speech code. It is worth noting that many universities have across-the-board hate speech bans, even after the controversy surrounding such codes in the 1990s. This policy bears little resemblance to those. We worked hard to approach this problem in as reasonable a way as possible, without stifling a single word of free speech. This is a policy that preserves freedom of expression while protecting our student body. It is designed to make everyone safer, including those who feel unsafe when free speech is threatened.
Ames, continued…We would also like to address some of the legitimate concerns regarding the policy. Some students have worried that this could chill free speech in academic discourse. However, the majority of private and public universities have some form of hate speech ban, including our neighbors at Georgetown and American Universities. Thirteen of the other top 20 law schools prohibit hate speech on campus. In the ongoing debate over these codes, some argue that protecting students is more important than protecting free speech, while others maintain that protecting free speech is the only way to protect all students. That is a false choice, one that oversimplifies the problem and underestimates us all. We do not have to sacrifice free speech to protect our students, and we do not have to sacrifice our safety to protect free speech. At a law school that houses some of the most brilliant minds in the nation, I have faith that free speech and safety can find a way to coexist.
Some have also wondered why the policy relies on the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to decide what constitutes a hate or extremist group. We wanted to make sure there was an objective standard for determining who qualifies, and these two lists were the most reliable and comprehensive choices. The SPLC has been monitoring hate groups since 1981, and the ADL has been doing so for extremist groups since the 1930s. Their lists are considered such a reputable standard that the FBI relies on them to compile its own list. The criteria for a hate group is one whose “primary purpose is to promote animosity, hostility, and malice against persons belonging to a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin which differs from that of the members of the organization.” It has nothing to do with politically unpopular opinions, but, instead, challenges those who advocate violence or dishonest propaganda to advance their political ends, regardless of what those ends may be.
Some have also expressed concern that this policy assumes that students are uninformed. The problem is that when it comes to the groups on these lists, we are often uninformed. You’ve probably never heard of the Council of Conservative Citizens or the National Alliance, just like anyone who saw the name “Family Research Council” would assume that it’s an organization that researches families. In fact, the first two are, respectively, the largest White Nationalist and Neo-Nazi groups in the United States, and the FRC does virtually no original research. The number of innocent-sounding names on these lists is no accident. It’s a tool that fringe groups like these use to gain entry to moderate spaces undetected. But, again, this policy does not ban those groups from our campus. It doesn’t even say those groups have nothing of value to add to the conversation. It simply asks that an event organizer take 30 seconds to check a name against list before inviting such a speaker to ensure that, if we’re lending the legitimacy of the GW Law name to a hate group and bringing them into our space, we’re doing so intentionally.
Some have also worried that a disclaimer might offend or deter groups from coming. These groups know that they are on these lists (indeed, many wear it as a badge of honor). They are banned from setting foot on the campus of many universities and face substantial restrictions at others. But, again, this policy does neither of those things. It simply ensures that, when they do set foot on our campus, we’re informed and protected. An argument in favor of protecting all speech, no matter how offensive, stands in direct contradiction to an argument against a disclaimer about hate speech. It necessarily assumes that hate speech is more worthy of protection than a disclaimer about hate speech.
Furthermore, it makes little sense to be more concerned about the possibility that a disclaimer might hurt the feelings of a White Knight of the Ku Klux Klan so badly that he cancels his speaking engagement than about the very real risk that he will intentionally hurt one of our fellow students. This argument ignores the reality that students and members of hate groups are not similarly situated. A student of color is considerably more likely to have faced abuses in the past than a White Knight, and LGBT students are living in the midst of a suicide epidemic caused in part by rhetoric the FRC continues to espouse. Maintaining the status quo doesn’t provide equal protection to all speech; it requires a handful of students to bear an unfair share of the burden.
In the end, this is about rights, the right to free speech being just one of them. As students, we have the right to ask that the space that we spend the better part of three years is a safe one. As potential targets, we have the right to know if someone whose organizational mission is to harm us is invited onto our campus, as do our families. As human beings, we have the right to life, liberty, and security of person. To many of you, the rare hate group on our campus may not seem like a threat. But, just as a threat to one speaker is a threat to free speech everywhere, a threat to one student a threat to us all.
If you want to sign your name in support of the policy or have questions for the drafters, go to www.facebook.com/HateGroupPetition.