SUNY Oswego Hosts Panel Discussing Hate Speech, Free Speech

The debate between hate speech versus free speech was the subject of a panel at SUNY Oswego, where speakers discussed the importance of the First Amendment to American democracy.

The panel is a part of the OzSpeaks series, created by SUNY Oswego’s department of Student Affairs, which aims to bring the campus together to discuss topics such as diversity and inclusion. Held on Thursday, Feb. 22, the panel featured Jason Zenor, assistant professor of communication studies; Dr. Scott Furlong, SUNY Oswego’s provost and vice president for academic affairs; and Joseph Storch from SUNY’s general counsel. It was moderated by Dr. Jerry Howland, associate vice president of student affairs and dean of students.

At the beginning of the panel, Howland asked the panelists questions regarding hurtful speech, transitioning to the deeper concepts of the elasticity and applicability of the First Amendment. She said that the majority of students do not believe that hate speech is protected by this amendment, and that it is extremely important for colleges to maintain an environment that prohibits hurtful speech.

Storch agreed with Howland that colleges and universities should do everything in their powers to not tolerate hate speech. However, he refuted her statement and informed the audience that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment.

“Hateful and hurtful speech, although I agree completely that it hurts sometimes. . .is protected, and we cannot arrest people for the words the say,” he said.

Storch, an attorney said that the only exceptions to the First Amendment are fighting words and true threats. He said he has yet to come across a court at the state or federal level that has not protected hate speech.

Howland then transitioned to the question of equality in regards to the First Amendment, asking the panelists if it serves everyone equally. Furlong was quick to disagree.

“I think there are a lot of examples out there, particularly within our political system, that would suggest that freedom of speech does not necessarily get applied equally,” said Furlong.

While Storch said he disagreed as well, he also reminded audience members that while the First Amendment has not always been applied fairly, it “is key to the imperfect democracy we have,” he said.Towards the end of the discussion, Howland asked what specific instances must occur for speech to become punishable by law.

While the panelists did not directly cite specific circumstances, Storch said that there must be a “vital interest” in the government limiting speech or deeming it punishable. Zenor also added that speech has a hierarchy and political speech is typically the most protected.

In the concluding remarks, Storch emphasized that the goal of the discussion was for students to become better educated on the concepts of free speech and how it is used on college campuses.

“What I hope all of you go out and do tomorrow, and for the rest of your careers. . .is show an example of the type of positive, respectful speech,” said Storch.

Theresa Personna, a junior global studies major, said she agreed with Storch and felt those students who went to the panel should understand that they shouldn’t hide behind their First Amendment rights if they said something hurtful.

“Free speech allows you to be an individual and to speak out on what is important to you,” said Personna. “It is not a scapegoat to bigotry.”

Kerri McGovern and Brittany Cairns, both public relations majors at SUNY Oswego, also agreed.

“I definitely believe in free speech, that everybody has the right to say what they feel they should say,” said McGovern. “But. . .when you’re being discriminative. . .I don’t think that’s necessary.”

“[Hate speech] is used as a defense quite often,” said Cairns. “I feel like people say something and immediately it’s freedom of speech, they don’t really, truly understand what it means.”

While the panel discussed the importance of the First Amendment to what Storch called our imperfect democracy, he reassured the audience that despite the issues we face in our country regarding free speech, there are still many strong aspects to our democracy.

“On our worst day in America, we still have it better than many, many people around the world,” said Storch.