Did Clemson Activists Demand the University “Prosecute Criminally” Free Speech? No, But They’re Still Wrong

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.

3 thoughts on “Did Clemson Activists Demand the University “Prosecute Criminally” Free Speech? No, But They’re Still Wrong

  1. I think that one would be hard-pressed to find any evidence that proscribing hate speech has ever actually worked.

    Hate speech succeeds–acquires a broader social, political, and cultural resonance–not only to the degree to which people feel free to indulge in it without social repercussions but also, paradoxically, to the degree to which it reinforces the speaker’s identification with the siege mentality on which hate groups thrive.

    Hate speech is the expression of a profound sense of impotence and the violent, compensatory projection of that impotence against a group that is culturally and politically vulnerable to demeaning stereotype and vicious caricature.

    So it is not enough simply to argue against hate speech. It is necessary to expose it for what it is–the ridiculous product of people raging against their own stunted minds and empty souls.

    Free expression does not make us more vulnerable to hate speech. Rather, it is a free society’s only effective defense against hate speech.

  2. Interestingly, in the wake of the Holocaust, the German Constitution bears the sentence: Die Wuerde des Menschen ist unantastbar (Human dignity is inviolable) — and in Germany the brandishing of the swastika is formally forbidden. Such is not the case in the American Consititution, however — yet one can understand the impulse to wish that it were in cases where the facts of history are so heinous as to make their repetition a feared “democratic” choice.

  3. Why the urge to serve as an apologist for these “students” ignorance? Perhaps if they spent more time in a writing lab rather than brandishing their delusional “victimhood,” they would be able to form cogent thoughts and sentences.

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