When students painted over the word “sanctuary” on the graffiti wall to say “a nation that cannot control its borders is not a nation,” Hashim Pashtun reached out to those students on Twitter to have a conversation.
Pashtun, president of the International Student Union, believes the best way to react to incidents in which students share opinions about controversial topics is not to fight back but to talk.
“I feel any speech that can directly or indirectly discourage or disrespect any part of our community is a misuse of free speech,” Pashtun said in an email.
It is important to initiate difficult conversations, but protecting freedom of speech for everyone can be tricky, delfin bautista, director of Ohio University’s LGBT Center, said.
Legally, students on a public college campus have the same protection of free speech as they would anywhere else, Susan Kruth, the senior program officer of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said. FIRE is an organization that defends freedom of speech and due process rights for college students and professors.
At OU, one of the most prominent symbols of student speech is the graffiti wall by Bentley Hall. Since 1967, the wall has been a way for students to showcase art, advertise for events and share political beliefs.
During the Vietnam War, the wall read "Pull out Dick — your father should have,” according to a previous Post report. In 2002, the wall was defaced during LGBT Pride Week with derogatory terms toward the LGBTQ community. In 2016, images and words on the wall sparked discussed on several occasions and led to questions regarding what could be considered “hate speech” and what is protected as free speech.
"It's been very, very rare that there has ever been anything put up on the wall that could be legally actionable or that we as an institution would paint over," Dean of Students Jenny Hall-Jones said.
Though hate speech does not have a legal definition in the U.S., some people define it as a true threat or “incitement to imminent lawless action,” Kruth said in an email. Incitement, for example, would include if a violent mob ordered an attack on a particular person. Hateful speech outside those two categories is often protected by the First Amendment.
“Everyone sort of has a different definition of what they think hate speech is, in part because there is no legal definition but usually, it’s mostly speech that is protected by the First Amendment,” Kruth said.
However, bautista, who uses they/them pronouns and the lowercase spelling of their name, said people in minority groups tend to think of hate speech differently than people in the majority. Sam Miller, president of OU College Democrats, said when speech begins to threaten or marginalize a particular group of people, the speech starts to enter the realm of hate speech.
“I think speech is a very powerful medium for people to voice their opinions and concerns,” Miller said. “I think when you begin to say very drastic things to people who it obviously has an effect on, it means something different to them.”
David Parkhill, president of OU College Republicans, said hate speech is subjective and there is no true way to define it. He thinks some people believe “Build the Wall” and “Make America Great Again” are phrases of hate speech, but he thinks those are simply political issues.
“Once I’m no longer allowed to express my opinions, then it becomes a real issue,” Parkhill said. “Say those two terms were labeled hate speech. Then, I’m labeled probably someone who spews hate speech, and my opinion is not allowed to be broadcast on this campus.”
Conversations sparked by free speech often became people talking at one another instead of seeking to understand the other’s point of view. People already have their mind made up and their arguments ready, bautista said.
“I think it’s important that we have dialogue and try our best,” bautista said. “I don’t know if we can ever fully understand somebody else’s experience, but we should do our best to at least consider and engage what they’re saying.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the definition of hate speech. The article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.