This college's ban on 'hate speech' may 'risk stifling public debate,' First Amendment nonprofit argues

Fort Lewis College currently prevents content with 'hate speech' from being posted on its campus.

'Hateful speech could be included in expression that meets a categorical exception to the First Amendment,' the free speech organization explains.

Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, currently bans “hate speech” from its campus.

As revealed by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the public liberal arts school considers material that contains “libel, obscenity, or hate speech” as “prohibited materials.” 

Those found to be in violation of the policy will have their postings removed, may lose posting privileges, and “may be subject to the Student Conduct Code proceedings,” according to the college’s campus posting regulations.

FIRE highlighted the policy as its “Speech Code of the Month.” The group notes that while libel and obscenity are, indeed, “two of the narrow categorical exceptions to First Amendment protection carved out by the Supreme Court,”  hate speech has no set definition.

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That lack of a definition leads the nonprofit organization to argue that “hateful speech could be included in expression that meets a categorical exception to the First Amendment.”

FIRE Director of Policy Reform Laura Beltz told Campus Reform that although it is “uncommon to see a policy that implies all ‘hate speech’ is unprotected speech” at other universities, she has seen “bans on ‘hateful’ expression at several universities, even public ones bound by the First Amendment.” 

“Bans on hateful speech are especially common in regulations of online speech,” she observed. 

In its article, FIRE points to the Supreme Court case Snyder v. Phelps. The majority opinion, penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, argues that the government cannot limit subjectively hateful speech.

Snyder v. Phelps was considered after the Westboro Baptist Church picketed a military funeral.

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain,” Roberts wrote in the opinion. 

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FIRE applies the precedent upheld in Snyder v. Phelps to Fort Lewis College’s hate speech policy. 

“By calling all hate speech ‘unprotected expressions,’ and stating that materials that contain hate speech may not be posted on campus, Fort Lewis College does indeed risk stifling public debate,” the organization argues.

Despite this potential infringement on First Amendment rights, other universities employ similar policies. 

For example, the University of Alaska Anchorage bans using IT resources to send “statements that are bigoted, hateful or racially offensive,” the University of Miami bans ”creating language on a social network that is hateful,” and Northeastern University bans spreading “intolerant or hateful material” — “in the sole judgment of the University.”

“Bans on hate speech or hateful expression are unconstitutionally overbroad, whether they regulate posters, online speech, or expression on the campus quad,” Beltz added.

According to Beltz, FIRE reached out on March 17 to Fort Lewis College to offer “assistance with revising the policy.” They have not yet received a response.

Campus Reform reached out to Fort Lewis College for comment; this article will be updated accordingly.