Freedom of speech has limits

Katherine Martin

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There has been much debate of whether hate speech qualifies as free speech as a direct result of the incident that occurred on Feb. 4 involving a UA student directing a racial slur toward another student.

“The First Amendment essentially says the government cannot regulate speech because it disagrees with the speaker’s message,” said Bryan Fair, a UA law professor who specializes in First Amendment rights. “The Supreme Court ultimately interprets the Constitution and decides whether or not it is permissible.”

Government can regulate speech that advocates unlawful activities, what is defined as obscene and commercial advertising, Fair said.

Fair used an example of the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses in yards.

“The government couldn’t prohibit me from burning a cross on my own property,” Fair said. “But they could if I burned the cross on the yard of an African-American family.”

Fair said it always depends on the context.

“If the speech occurs in the context where it indicates the intent of bodily harm,” Fair said. “The court says it can be regulated.”

The University of Alabama Code of Conduct recognizes the significance of student rights, including freedom of expression, said Deborah Lane, director of University Relations.

However, Lane said, students are also required to respect the dignity and rights of others.

“Verbal abuse, harassment or other conduct that threatens or endangers the health or safety of a person is considered a violation of the University’s Code of Conduct,” Lane said.

As with all instances involving charges of harassment, Lanesaid, all the facts and circumstances must be examined to determine whether one’s freedom of expression has so exceeded boundaries of decency that loses its protection.

The word directed at the black student suggests a certain point in history in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the term was used to degrade or exclude individuals, Fair said.

The word has a certain context when a white person directs it to a black person, he said.

“It’s probably one of the worst epithets that a white person could use against a colored person,” Fair said.

There is a specific history that goes with it that is passed from generation to generation among white people and the message has been passed within the black community as well, he said.

When white people say the word to black people, Fair said, it is usually used in the context that they are unfit to associate with white people due to superior status.

“Some people understand the term as a hammer,” Fair said. “A loaded weapon to degrade another human.”

Fair said this is the second time since last Tuesday that a student has come to him and said they have had the word directed toward them.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think this is an isolated occasion,” he said.