How a Biden transition team member’s ‘hate speech’ proposal would impact college campuses

A Biden transition team member and former State Department undersecretary advocated for a “hate speech” law in the United States.

Joe Cohn of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) told Campus Reform about the implications of campus culture that leverage concern over “hate speech” against students.

Former Vice President Joe Biden tapped Richard Stengel — a former State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs with the Obama administration — for his transition team. Last year, Stengel argued that “America needs a hate speech law.”

In an op-ed for the Washington Post last October, Stengel said that “the First Amendment protects the ‘thought that we hate,’ but it should not protect hateful speech that can cause violence by one group against another.” He called this aspect of the Amendment a “design flaw” in an age in which “everyone has a megaphone.” According to the transition website, Stengel is the “team lead” for the United States Agency for Global Media.

He explained that the “intellectual underpinning” of the First Amendment was “engineered for a simpler era,” in which the internet did not make it difficult to discern truth from error.

In discussing his thoughts on the First Amendment, he noted that his experience as a government official showed him that the protection of free speech in the United States is “an outlier” compared to other nations.

[RELATED: Amherst College students demands college revise speech policy to address ‘hate speech’]

In contrast to Stengel’s argument about the First Amendment, however, Joe Cohn — Legislative and Policy Director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) — pointed Campus Reform toward FIRE team member Zach Greenberg’s summary of recent abuses in nations with weak protection of free speech. 

Among Greenberg’s examples are Pakistani citizens receiving death sentences for “blasphemy” against Islam, Turkish journalists facing life sentences for anti-government articles, and German police raiding homes as a result of “hateful postings over social media.”

Cohn explained that a culture hostile to free speech already exists on college campuses.

Though hate speech laws would be struck down in the United States “fairly easily and fairly quickly” due to the strength of the United States Constitution and judicial precedent surrounding the issue of hate speech, hate speech policies “have been proliferating on campus for a long time,” he told Campus Reform. “They have had a chilling effect on a lot of campus speech, and not always in partisan terms. It’s one more way that schools can police what people say and punish people who rock the boat.”

[RELATED: Black Student Union demands ‘disciplinary’ board to punish students who use ‘hate speech’]

“The impetus to try to make campuses a kinder, more welcoming place through censorship is misguided,” explained Cohn. “Instead, institutions would be wiser to encourage more dialogue and to lead by example when it comes to creating an environment where everyone feels welcome.”

Cohn also noted that Stengel’s distinction between supposed “hate speech” and protected speech is by no means new: “the arguments for censorship always start with ‘free speech is really important, but…’”

Campus Reform reached out to the Biden campaign for comment and will update this article accordingly.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @BenZeisloft