In response to the appearance of anti-Muslim flyers last week, the University administration held a town hall forum Wednesday to discuss the political climate on campus. The meeting descended into shouts from the audience as many students decried the inadequacy of the University’s response to such speech. Students condemned the University’s “bullshit” institutions for handling racism and called for more than “meaningless platitudes” denouncing hate speech on campus.
This debate echoes a trend at UT over the past few years. In 2015, massive backlash met the Fiji fraternity’s “border patrol” themed party. Last semester, Young Conservatives of Texas faced widespread criticism after hosting an affirmative action themed bake sale. In all of these instances, the University was quick to denounce these behaviors, and in all of these instances widespread criticism met the University’s decision to stop there.
A common theme of disappointment reverberates throughout these debates, as many condemn the University’s apparent unwillingness to protect its students. However, while these messages are no doubt abhorrent, the demand for stricter action is shortsighted and ignores the fundamental role of the University.
The call for harsh response in this specific case is impractical and ideologically fraught. The white supremacist group claiming responsibility for the posters, American Vanguard, is not affiliated with UT. The posters were part of the group’s so-called “The Texan Offensive,” which involves posting fliers at universities around the state as a recruitment tool. Needless to say, the University has no jurisdiction to penalize independent groups, and the law does not protect citizens against cruel words.
Students who condemn the University’s response make the mistake of equating hate speech with hate crimes. This presents a slippery slope, which, if the University were to concede to their wishes, could set a precedent for the banishment of unpopular opinions in the campus discourse. Speech that makes students feel unsafe should not be promoted, but seeking to punish those engaging in it creates the potential for a deeply problematic situation on campus.
Punishing people for stating their admittedly abhorrent beliefs ignores the adverse effects of limiting free speech. It creates victims out of bigots and introduces the potential for radicalization. When ugly beliefs are forced into secrecy, unencumbered by popular criticism and debate, they can fester into more radical, uglier ideas.
The use of a university as a safe space promotes ignorance. However pleasant it must be to exist in a space free of racism and xenophobia, it is not reflective of 21st century America. It is unproductive to ignore the ugliness bubbling under the surface of our society. In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, UT President Gregory Fenves wrote, “educating students in an environment as diverse as the United States is one of the most effective ways to ensure that all students succeed in, and contribute to, the real world when they leave campus.”
Diversity of opinion must extend both ways. While the University should by no means support these beliefs, obstructing them would create an unrealistic environment and hinder the intellectual growth of students.
One student criticized Fenves for creating an environment where “the students (have to fight this) all on their own.” But they failed to realize that creating such an environment is exactly what the University exists to do. You should have the skills to express your revulsion at these ideas, and you should exercise your right to speak louder than they do. That’s what you’re here for.
Anderson is a Plan II and history freshman from Houston.