Recently, news about a set of demands by activist students at Clemson University concerned about racism and intolerance spread like wildfire across the internet when a group of 110 faculty and staff published a letter in the student newspaper endorsing those demands. These students and faculty were accused by various conservative websites of wanting to “prosecute criminally” various “predatory behaviors and defamatory speech.” The headline of a Campus Reform essay declared, “Clemson professors demand criminal prosecution of social media posts.”
These assertions are incorrect. What the student group (See the Stripes) wrote was this. “we want a public commitment from the Clemson University Administration to prosecute criminally predatory behaviors and defamatory speech committed by members of the Clemson University community (including, but not limited to, those facilitated by usage of social media).”
What we have here is a failure to communicate. It makes no sense to demand that Clemson “prosecute criminally” anything, since it’s not the government, and especially since defamatory speech isn’t a crime, it’s civil litigation. It makes much sense to interpret this as a demand to “prosecute” (that is, punish under university disciplinary rules) “criminally predatory behaviors and defamatory speech.”
So I emailed the See the Stripes campaign, to ask them if the word “criminally” was meant to modify “prosecute” or “behavior.” And as I suspected, it’s a reference to “behavior.” However, that doesn’t end the debate about free speech, as those like FIRE who didn’t misread the statement, correctly note.
See the Stripes wrote to me, “We want the university to hold people accountable for threats and harassment. That’s all. Criminal, as in hate speech or threats of violence, cyber bullying, stalking, etc.”
Of course, hate speech and cyberbulling are not crimes (unlike threats of violence or stalking, which are). In fact, hate speech and cyberbulling don’t qualify as either “predatory behaviors and defamatory speech,” although many people have a misguided conception of this. But in general, a call to punish “criminally predatory behaviors” is perfectly reasonable.
It’s more disturbing that “defamatory speech” is included in this list. Defamation is not a crime in the US. Defamation is an individual civil action; the concept of “group libel” has long been discredited.
To put it bluntly, if you start punishing social media and free speech, people of color and leftist activists are likely to be the first ones up against the wall. If “defamatory speech” is punishable, what makes you think that the activists accusing people of being “racist” would somehow be immune from a complaint?
By calling for the university to punish more students, these students and faculty are doing absolutely nothing to stop racism, and worse yet, they are leaving activists like themselves vulnerable to punishment if someone dislikes what they say.
We need to interpret the Clemson activists’ statement fairly and not falsely accuse these students and faculty of demanding something they didn’t do. At the same time, we need to recognize that one small part of their demands is deeply misguided and a threat to free speech on campus.