A dangerous demand
Race Issues | Students at Clemson University seek to criminalize free...
by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Friday, April 29, 2016, at 4:19 pm
Although the South has made significant progress since the end of Jim Crow, and it is certainly light-years more advanced than it was during the time of slavery, it is still a mess when it comes to racial issues, with tensions between whites and blacks situated on a major fault line.
Major earthquake tremors are regularly felt at large state schools in the region. The latest was a lengthy sit-in last week at Clemson University in South Carolina, as students protested a series of racial incidents at the college. (Full disclosure: I’m a Clemson grad.)
And like Oklahoma and Louisiana Tech, these incidents were associated with campus Greek life, including a racially themed party held by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, with students hanging bananas from an African-American history banner, among other things.
I get it because I experienced it. During my four years at Clemson, I often was called the “n-word.” I was told by many of my white friends, especially those in fraternities, that I was “a good nigger,” unlike those “bad niggers” who were lazy, violent, and sexually promiscuous. These guys were good, church-raised Southerners. I spent four years walking past the Kappa Alpha house and its Confederate flags in nearly every window, proudly displayed in support of Southern heritage and states’ rights—namely the right for states like Alabama to keep my family enslaved on the Bradley plantation in Escambia Country.
The protesters at Clemson expressed lament over the university’s handling of racial issues on campus, including the lack of a gathering space for minority students, the homogeneity of student government, the lack of financial support for the student organizations of underrepresented minority groups, the low number of minority faculty members, the need to re-name buildings on the campus that honor known racists and defenders of slavery, and the lack of diversity awareness across the campus. Clemson president Jim Clements responded, promising specific plans to address many of these areas of concern.
Among the list of student demands—and the one that should trouble us the most—is a request to criminalize free speech. The students want the university “to prosecute criminally predatory behaviors and defamatory speech committed by members of the Clemson University community.” First, there are already local, state, and federal laws that govern predatory behavior and speech, but defamatory speech should never be criminalized unless it leads to direct harm. What makes this demand so dangerous is that it puts the power of defining “defamatory” in the hands of a few bureaucrats. This is standard policy in North Korea and Cuba.
While I repeatedly heard the “n-word” while I was a student, I never believed such speech, even if used in a defamatory way, should be against the law. While it may be ignorant, racist, and immoral, uttering such words are not criminal. Some believe the Christian gospel, pro-life terms, or the language of black nationalism to be defamatory. Do we really want the preaching of the gospel to be declared against the law and subject to prosecution?
On balance, I would rather have a society where people are free to be ignorant and defamatory and rely on moral formation to appeal to a change in the conscience than to have a society where government bureaucrats decide to criminalize speech according to their personal preferences, because yesterday’s celebrated speech is often today’s defamatory speech.
Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.