Professors using syllabus to ban hate speech in the classroom causes division on campus

The University's approach to hate speech comes from a 1969 court case

The first day of the semester almost always begins with a classroom syllabus, a contract between the students and faculty regarding the conduct of the class. Those contracts often include a provision instructing students to refrain from speech that can be considered hateful or derogatory. 

“Avoid racist, sexist, homophobic or other negative language that may unnecessarily exclude members of our campus and classroom…” stated social science faculty Michael Golden in his fall 2017 syllabus for his POS 313 class. 

ASU law professor Paul Bender said if the University defined hate speech in a narrow and clear way, and then instructed students to not use the language in the definition, then ASU should have the right to remove a student for disrupting the learning process.

However, enforcing rules that prohibit speech that can be considered hateful enters a legal gray area, as hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. 

Wesley Jefferies, a political science senior, says that hate speech should be determined on a logical and rational basis. Jefferies said University officials should note that the definition of hate speech should not be based on whose feelings were hurt.

“I think there’s a distinction that we can make between giving opinions that might not be considered inclusive or sensitive by others, and others which might be considered ad hominems directed at a group rather than an individual,” Jefferies said.

ASU has had its own problems with hate speech on campus, most recently in late August when flyers advertising a site called ""  appeared on campus. The flyers referred to University professors as "Cultural Marxist."

Read more: Students, University react to alt-right flyers on campus

ASU journalism professor Joseph Russomanno said that the while speech does not lose its First Amendment protection merely because it is hateful or offensive, some would argue that instructors have a responsibility to conduct a classroom that fosters a positive learning environment. 

“Part of the dilemma with this issue is exactly what is hateful speech?" he said. "Where are we going to draw the line between what is in some way accepted, and speech that somehow crosses that line into the unacceptable, true hateful category?"

Russomanno said that ASU takes its cues on handling free speech in the classroom from the landmark 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines. When students were suspended for protesting the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students, stating that "Students don't shed their constitutional rights at the school house gates."

The Arizona Board of Regents student conduct code admits that all enforcement of student conduct must not infringe on constitutional protections. 

“Enforcement of this Student Code of Conduct is subject to applicable law, including constitutional protections for speech, association and the press," the code of conduct reads. 

Universities must ask if hate speech is disruptive to the learning process, while balancing First Amendment rights. According to the ASU code of conduct USI 201-10, professors have the right to remove students from the classroom if they participate in disruptive behavior. 

“An instructor may withdraw a student from a course with a mark of 'W' or 'E' when the student’s behavior disrupts the educational process. Disruptive classroom behavior for this purpose is defined by the instructor,” the code states.

Bender said if rules on disruptive behavior are applied in a sensible way, he did not believe that the code of conduct infringed on the rights of students.

“I think that the University has the right to tell students that they cannot disrupt the classroom, and if they do, they will be removed,” Bender said. “As long as that is the definition of disruption that is used, it's a good one.”

Some students have called for ASU to be a "safe space" that rejects perceived racist or hateful ideas and speech. ASU offers a three hour workshop called the "SafeZONE" to help students understand the struggles students in the LGBTQIA community face. 

Russomanno and Jefferies disagreed about the place of "safe spaces" on campus. Russomanno said that most people were okay with the idea, wanting the University to be comfortable learning environment. 

However, Jefferies said that under no circumstances should the University have any policy that endorses the idea of safe spaces. 

"After college, we're going to find that in the real world there’s far less sensitivity to our feelings and even to things that we might consider hateful,” Jefferies said. “At no point should we be deluding and deceiving students into thinking that life can be this easy and sheltered beyond graduation.”

Reach the reporter at and follow @brookehanrahan1 on Twitter. 

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