Nadine Strossen’s new book on hate speech, why such speech should not be censored or banned, and its relevance to recent campus events

I’ve just finished Nadine Strossen‘s 2018 book, HATE: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship, one of 16 volumes in the series “Inalienable Rights,” edited by University of Chicago constitutional law professor Geoffrey Stone.  Click on the screenshot to go to the book’s Amazon site:

Strossen was president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) from 1991 to 2008—their first woman president. She’s now a professor at New York Law School. She’s always been a civil-rights lawyer, and this is her third book on the topic. Given her expertise and position at the ACLU, she was an excellent person to write this book.

I recommend it to all of you who want to read a succinct (186 page) argument for why hate speech should be neither outlawed nor censored by the government. (Strossen also argues—and I agree—that although censorship of hate speech is prohibited in government institutions, including public universities, private institutions should also follow public ones as far as possible.) She goes into the legal background for allowing hate speech, citing numerous court decisions and also mentioning what forms of speech can be barred by law (speech that incites imminent violence and cannot be countered by non-censorious means, defamation, false advertising, personal and persistent harassment of individuals in the workplace, etc.)

She then makes the argument for allowing hate speech, with each point in a separate chapter:

  • Hate speech violates fundamental principles of free speech and equality
  • Hate speech is irreparably vague; no hate speech ban or law can be applied without subjective interpretation that bans some speech that we really want to allow
  • There is no evidence that hate speech causes the harms that it’s said to (personal trauma, victimization, etc.)
  • There is evidence that listening to hate speech and developing a “tough skin” to withstand it and argue against it is psychologically healthier than reacting like a victim and being offended
  • Hate speech laws have been ineffective: they don’t reduce hate speech or bigotry in countries where they’ve been enacted
  • There are better ways to counteract hate speech than censoring it or making rules against it (counterspeech, organized “opposition events,” etc.)

In other words, this is a defense of the First Amendment, and takes into account and answers most of the arguments people make against “hate speech”. While the first half of the book is largely repetitive and a bit tedious, the second half, which gives examples instead of purely philosophical argument, is worth the price of the book alone. I recommend it for all free-speech advocates—or for those who want to ban “hate speech”

I want to emphasize two of Strossen’s arguments that are relevant to recent events on campuses. The first is her argument that the best way to eliminate bigotry is to urge people from different “tribes” to get to know one another. This is the basis on which I oppose recent calls for “affinity housing” (e.g., segregated housing based on ethnicity, sexuality, and gender, as endorsed by many students at Williams College and actually practiced at several universities). If colleges are truly in favor of inclusion and diversity, and opposed to bigotry, then they should never allow segregatedof housing, which reinforces tribalism and prevents students from mingling. Here’s what Strossen says about the salutary effects of getting to know members of other “tribes” (p. 178):

Social science studies have confirmed what everyday experience suggests: that the most effective way to decrease people’s negative attitudes toward members of any societal group is to give them an opportunity to get to know one another. As noted above, the “inter-group contact theory” was first formulated by Harvard professor Gordon Allport in his trailblazing 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice. Allport posited that interaction is especially constructive in setting such as school, work, and community groups, where people collaborate on common endeavors. Allport’s findings have been corroborated by a vast social science literature documenting that inter-group contact plays a vital role in reducing prejudice and promoting a more tolerant, integrated, and harmonious society.  The evidence demonstrates that contact overcomes prejudice and forges positive relationships among people from many different groups, including racial and ethnic groups, the elderly, LGBT persons, mentally ill people, persons with disabilities, and AIDS victims. A 1993 study of heterosexuals’ attitudes toward gay men, for example, found that the extent of contact predicted these attitudes better than any other variable, including political ideology, and a 2001 meta-analysis of 500 studies about contact theory concluded that greater understanding between groups can be facilitated by essentially any contact.

I see absolutely no justification for segregated housing in a university. Or rather, students give justifications, but I reject them.

The other position taken by Strossen is that universities should not themselves take ideological positions with respect to specific issues (BDS would be one of these). She explains why on pp. 174-176; here’s one quote:

In light of the foregoing academic freedom concerns, one might argue that university officials, acting in their official capacities, should refrain from engaging in any responsive counterspeech, even in response to speech that is clearly hateful. University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone—who, like Kalven, is a leading First Amendment scholar and advocate—supports this stance, arguing that “[w]henever a university arrogates to itself the authority to ‘declare’ certain positions to be ‘true’ or ‘false,’ it necessarily chills the freedom of its faculty and student to take contrary—officially disapproved—positions.”

Let me suggest a plausible alternative strategy that both honors academic freedom and enables the university to stake out its own position on fundamental issues: a university should be able to engage in proactive counterspeech by issuing an affirmative statement of general principles that it champions, which should include not only freedom of speech and academic freedom, but also equality, diversity, and inclusivity. Such a broad, forward-looking statement should also explain that university officials’ “no comment” policy toward specific controversial expression by members of the campus community should not be construed as endorsin any such expression, but rather as reflecting the university’s fidelity to academic freedom.

This makes a lot of sense and, indeed, is the University of Chicago’s policy when students demand that it condemn specific policies or on-campus speeches.

This policy is relevant to an upcoming event at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, described in the following article in the Fitchburg (Massachusetts) Sentinel and Enterprise (click on screenshot):

UMass Amherst leaders are facing backlash for not taking a strong enough stance against an upcoming campus forum that many groups are condemning as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.

The May 4 event, “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech and the Battle for Palestinian Right,” will feature Roger Waters, the Pink Floyd rocker and advocate for Palestinian human rights, and Palestinian political activist Linda Sarsour.

“We are deeply concerned about the ‘Not Backing Down’ event taking place on campus, as are many UMass students, alumni, and community members,” UMass Hillel, the center of Jewish life on campus, said in a statement.

UMass Hillel added that it’s “particularly disconcerted” the event is being co-sponsored by university departments: the Department of Communication and the Department of Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies.

The Anti-Defamation League in a letter to UMass Amherst expressed “deep concern” about the event, also pointing to the co-sponsor departments.

Speakers at the event include hatemongers like Linda Sarsour, Roger Waters, and Marc Lamont Hill.  It’s clearly going to be a hatefest toward Israel tinged with anti-Semitism, but I support the University’s right to have it. As Campus Reform notes, “80 civil rights, education, religious, faculty, and student organizations have called on UMass to rescind its sponsorship of the event.”  I disagree with them.

So does the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, who issued a longish statement defending the right of the college to host the event, though it contributed no funds toward it. The event, after all, is sponsored by academic departments, including Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies (no surprise there!). I’ve put Chancellor Subbaswamy’s admirable statement, defending free speech and viewpoint neutrality, below the fold to reduce the TL; DR factor, but here’s one excerpt—the only misstep he makes:

The opinions expressed by participants at the May 4 event and other such events do not represent the views of the University. And, as has been stated repeatedly, the University remains firmly opposed to academic boycotts of any kind, including BDS.

This violates Strossen’s dictum above by giving a university position on BDS. Much as I despise BDS, which I consider an anti-Semitic movement whose aim is to obliterate the state of Israel, I think universities should take no official stand on it beyond affirming the kinds of general principles Strossen outlines.

These kinds of free-speech issues are constantly arising on campuses, and that’s why you should familiarize yourself with Strossen’s arguments and data.


Statement from the University of Massachusetts Amherst

The event scheduled for May 4 on the UMass Amherst campus is being presented by a private foundation. The foundation has, as many non-UMass organizations regularly do, rented space on campus to host its panel discussion. No university or taxpayer funds are being used to support the event.

UMass Amherst is committed to fostering a community of dignity and respect and rejects all forms of bigotry. The campus is also firmly committed to the principles of free speech and academic freedom. As such, and as is required of a public institution under the First Amendment, UMass Amherst applies a content-neutral standard when making facilities available to outside organizations for the purpose of holding events.

The principle of academic freedom extends to both individual faculty members and to faculty-led academic departments. Departmental sponsorship of various types of events does not constitute an endorsement of the views expressed at those events, rather it is an endorsement of the exploration of complex and sometimes difficult topics. Promoting the free exchange of ideas is one of the most important functions of the university. Our faculty members draw upon their fields of study and expertise to engage in the issues of the day, distinct from a personal political agenda.

The opinions expressed by participants at the May 4 event and other such events do not represent the views of the University. And, as has been stated repeatedly, the University remains firmly opposed to academic boycotts of any kind, including BDS.

In addition to the opinions our faculty have shared with me related to the content of the event, which is being paid for and presented by a private foundation, many of you have written to me in support of academic freedom, a principle that I have steadfastly defended. Some faculty members have also observed that with academic freedom comes “special obligations.”

In today’s hyper-polarized environment, we increasingly find ourselves living in our own echo chambers where our opinions are validated by like-minded individuals, and the meaningful exchange of ideas is exceedingly rare. Unless we allow audiences to hear differing points of view, the discussion, instead of being one that opens minds, will simply affirm preconceived notions. I encourage university professors to exercise that special obligation and find meaningful ways of bringing opposing sides together to have deeper dialogues among those who hold differing opinions on the issues of the day.

The phrase “special obligations” originates in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which, given the lively discussion on campus regarding next week’s event, is worth revisiting. The Principles state that “College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their
special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.”

The Principles can be viewed in full at this site [JAC: not given to me].

Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy


  1. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 26, 2019 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    … a vast social science literature documenting that inter-group contact plays a vital role in rrducing [sic] prejudice and promoting a more tolerant, integrated, and harmonious society.

    Hell, I’m convinced the US came so far so fast on gay rights and same-sex marriage because, when people started having the courage to come out of the closet in large numbers, pretty much everyone everywhere figured out they had a gay member of their own extended family — and, jeez, gay Cousin Tim or lesbian Aunt Doris or whoever didn’t seem so bad or weird (or at least no worse or weirder than the straight members of their families).

    • Posted April 26, 2019 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Look up how they handle tribalism in Singapore. The assuage housing. No families are allowed to live in an apartment adjoining a family of the same tribe. It works for them. Not much freedom of association or any other freedom there. But their economy is going great. (Last time I checked anyway) I will check on their happiness index to see how they rate on that scale. My guess is it will be high.

      • Posted April 26, 2019 at 10:34 am | Permalink

        They assign housing.

        Second sentence.

        Sorry I missed it.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted April 26, 2019 at 11:05 am | Permalink

          That’s ok, OG; “assuage housing” strikes me as a phrase at least as felicitous and meaningful as “affinity housing.” 🙂

      • Posted April 26, 2019 at 10:37 am | Permalink

        They rank 34. US is 18.

        • Michael Waterhouse
          Posted April 26, 2019 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

          Was it as high as you expected?

          • Posted April 26, 2019 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

            No, I thought they would be higher, around twenty or more. And I thought the US would be half a dozen or so spots higher.

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 26, 2019 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Hooray! My local library has this, hopefully on display – the cover looks appealing for the anti-hate speech audience, and when they read the words “with free speech, not censorship”, I hope they’ll go “hmmm, interesting”

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 26, 2019 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Very good posting. The step backward by some universities by going for separate housing for minority students is really strange. It goes against everything known about integration and social improvement. Otherwise known as education, living in close proximity verses separate is always the goal in understanding. However, the white upper class will never stop practicing this in America, at least they haven’t so far.

    I experienced integration first hand, simply by spending a few years in the military. Coming from an all white community it was quite an experience but also a good one. Problem is that so few people today experience the military they do not get this culture, especially the rich white privileged. To separate them in colleges is a bad move.

    • Robert Ladley
      Posted April 26, 2019 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      I agree. I experienced this integration when I joined the RAF as a young cadet coming from a background of some privilege and a certain social isolation. There were not too many non white trainees those days (1961)but it opened my eyes and views significantly.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted April 26, 2019 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        My experience was as an enlisted person in the air force in 1968. Had 3 person rooms in basic training and open barracks in tech school. After arriving at my assigned base, RAF Lakenheath we had two man rooms.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 26, 2019 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      There was a black guy in the next room over from mine in the dorm my first year on campus. We got to be buddies, and, a couple summers later, we rented a house together (really more of a shack on the side of an Appalachian hill).

      Can’t say the two of us actually advanced the cause of racial harmony in these United States any, but we had a damn good time raising a little hell together — which is always a step in the right direction. 🙂

      And speaking to your experience, Randy, best (or at least most forward-looking) thing Harry S. Truman ever did was integrate the US military services.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted April 26, 2019 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        Yes, I am sure Truman got a lot of blow back on that and lost some votes in the south. In my case, I have to admit the same as Robert, the numbers of African Americans was pretty small, however I am sure they were much greater in the army and marines. The Air Force was still pretty white in those days.

    • Posted April 29, 2019 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Very well put! Couldn’t agree more.

  4. Posted April 26, 2019 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    “Private ones should follow public ones as far as possible”

    That is always the thing: how far is as far as possible.

    • Posted April 27, 2019 at 6:01 am | Permalink

      I think that all private universities with the exception of religious schools can follow the Chicago Principles without reservation.

      Religious schools MAY be an exception in being allowed to censor views that undermine their tenets. (I don’t think they should, but I don’t think they should be prohibited from doing that.) But for schools like Williams or Harvard, they should do exactly what public universities do.

  5. Max Blancke
    Posted April 26, 2019 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Not totally on topic, but back in the Corps, when two people did not get along (to the point of disrupting group cohesiveness), we had an NCO tie them together with 6 feet of line, and leave them that way for a few days. Every time I saw this happen, they ended up close friends.

    • Cate Plys
      Posted April 26, 2019 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      Great detail, and totally on topic.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 26, 2019 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    “… the University remains firmly opposed to academic boycotts of any kind, including BDS.”

    This violates Strossen’s dictum above by giving a university position on BDS.

    Seems to me it would have been better for Chancellor Subbaswamy to have said the university would remain subject-matter-neutral by taking no position on boycotts of any kind, one way or the other. But at least his position is viewpoint-neutral in opposing all boycotts, not remaining silent as to (or supporting) some but not others.

  7. Malgorzata
    Posted April 26, 2019 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    „the best way to eliminate bigotry is to urge people from different “tribes” to get to know one another.”

    I have a problem with this statement. Yes, there are both studies and plenty of anecdotal evidence that it is so. However, all studies and all evidence are about more or less ”normal” situations. When the situation is definitely abnormal, when the authorities encourage hatred and murder, this doesn’t seem to work any longer. I’m thinking about China’s cultural revolution where children denounced their parents, and workmates denounced each other (the same happened in Sovjet Union); about the war in the former Jugoslavia where male classmates from one ethnic group raped and murdered their female classmates from another group; about Rwanda, where even in mixed families Hutu murdered Tutsi; about Poland during WWII where a hiding Jew was deadly afraid of meeting a Pole he knew before the war. There are many more examples. Of course, such abnormal situations are much rarer than normal life. So normally, it may work. But I’ve never seen any study about these situation when suddenly the effect of ”knowing one another” disappear. Are there such studies or at least some thoughts about this phenomenon?

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted April 26, 2019 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      I think you are very correct on this. Even the integration rules and laws in the U.S. have not solved the problems in total or even mostly corrected them. We still have bigotry and we still practice segregation in many places, like schools and neighborhoods and yes, in their churches. But just because we don’t solve the problems, we have to try.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted April 26, 2019 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        Yeah, the US has managed to get rid of de jure segregation for all intents and purposes. But de facto segregation and bigotry is still a sad fact of American life. That’s in large measure the fault of not providing for stronger enforcement of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, in my opinion.

  8. Legal_Eagle
    Posted April 26, 2019 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    I almost entirely agree, but I see no problem with the statement he made that the university opposes academic boycotts. The reason why is because that would specifically be related to academic policies of the university, and not a statement on BDS beyond the academic boycott.

  9. phoffman56
    Posted April 27, 2019 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Maybe I’m confused, but shouldn’t your first bullet point:

    “Hate speech violates fundamental principles of free speech and equality”

    begin with a word like ‘banning’?

    I’m not necessarily disagreeing with it as is, other than it seems a bit confusing in the context.

  10. phoffman56
    Posted April 27, 2019 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Maybe I’m confused, but shouldn’t your first bullet point:

    “Hate speech violates fundamental principles of free speech and equality”

    begin with a word like ‘banning’?

    I’m not necessarily disagreeing with it as is, other than it seems a bit confusing in the context.

  11. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted April 27, 2019 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Well, I don’t want an argument – and it is a porr argument, see below – I want facts. That is why this was interesting: “Hate speech laws have been ineffective: they don’t reduce hate speech or bigotry in countries where they’ve been enacted”. I would like to see that statistic.

    On the other hand, it seems to confirm that such laws are not harmful either. At worst there is no difference and we should question if they are worth the effort.

    Hate speech violates fundamental principles of free speech and equality

    That is not what many national courts have found, they use them in parallel with free speech laws – not without debate, mind. Wikipedia lists 33 nations with hate speech laws [ ].

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted April 27, 2019 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, it is late: poor argument.

  12. Dominic
    Posted April 29, 2019 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    Book by Mick Hume –
    Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?
    May interest…

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