Can there be limits to free speech?

OBSERVER Photo Incidents in recent years involving the State University of Fredonia were part of a discussion on hate speech this week.

Freedom of speech can be a fine line. As Americans, we often take it for granted. We can say what we want, when we want. It is a part of who we are, thanks to the First Amendment.

But those benefits do come with disadvantages. People who disagree with an opinion can provide a different view on the issue, and may even take on the messenger.

Then there is the uncomfortable issue of hate speech. On Wednesday, State University of New York at Fredonia faculty members Stephen Kershnar and Jennifer Hildebrand tackled this topic on the second floor of the Williams Center before around 45 people — an impressive number considering fall break was the next day. Both were passionate and informative in their presentations during the Brown Bag Lunch series that this year focuses on “Causes and Conflicts.”

Kershnar, a philosophy professor who writes a twice-monthly column in the OBSERVER, took a stance on allowing the abhorrent voices while Hildebrand, history department professor and coordinator of the Ethnic Studies program, made the case for toning down what can be a vile side of American society. No one or institution is immune, especially in this era of social media, from hate speech. A week ago today, the news offices of the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester were targeted by vandalism. The word “liars” was spray painted on the news organization’s windows and building.

Needless to say, it left some staffers there shaken.

Here at home, 4,500 students from different backgrounds converge annually at the university. Most of the experiences are treasured. Some others, however, bring major angst.

Kershnar pointed to some controversial episodes that have been tied to the campus in recent years. A person pictured in blackface at an off-campus event during Halloween. Another student who claimed to be “sucker-punched” by a black person who posted their bruised face picture on Facebook with the N-word.

Both instances sparked outrage in the campus and community. But did they cross a line or promote hate speech? Kershnar says no.

“Clearly this is protected speech,” he said. “(People) can disagree and say they were offended, but that’s different from any sort of punitive action.”

That does not mean those statements or actions, however, were welcomed. “When hate speech is employed it communicates that the target group is viewed as an undesireable presence and a legitimate object of hostility,” Hildebrand countered.

Both examples used by Kershnar brought just that.

But here’s where the line blurs. What may be seen as hateful or offensive by one person is not to another.

Toward the end of the program, the current political climate entered into the discussion. It was noted by one of those in attendance that our current President Donald Trump seems to promote certain types of hate speech, especially in regard to immigration. Kershnar disagreed, noting he was on the other side of the spectrum — more upset by the actions of former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

That led to an agreement to disagree.

What was important about the afternoon session was the dialogue. There were people engaged in discussing an important topic, not texting photos or memes in an attempt to get laughter.

It was all serious — with students asking meaningful questions about having hate speech be a part of the discussion in finding the truth with another noting he, as an outsider at another school, was a target of this type of banter.

In the end, nothing was settled. But having a discussion where there is not always common ground — and respect shown for others — is a major win for our society today.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.

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