Duke grad student equates free speech to white supremacy

A Duke University graduate student claims in a recent op-ed that defending free speech on college campuses is tantamount to white supremacy.

“I am thinking about how an urgent and overdue conversation about racism—on our campus and across our country—has been derailed by a diversionary and duplicitous obsession with the First Amendment,” grad student Bennett Carpenter wrote in an op-ed for the Duke Chronicle last week. “I am thinking about how quickly the conversation has shifted from white supremacy to white fragility—and how this shift is itself an expression of white supremacy.”

Carpenter argues that those who have expressed concerns about the stifling of free speech on college campuses in the wake of last semester’s racial protests are merely hiding behind the First Amendment to “deflect conversations about race and racism in order to protect themselves from race-based stress,” arguing that this is the only explanation for prioritizing free speech over the grievances expressed by student activists.

This “strategy,” he laments, “leaves those of us committed to abolishing white supremacy in a double bind,” caught between the choices of engaging in the debate, and thereby tacitly conceding the legitimacy of free speech concerns, or ignoring the argument and losing the debate. Carpenter chooses the former, and proceeds to outline several reasons for his belief that student protests present no threat to free expression.

“The first point to make is that, despite the hand-wringing, I have yet to see a single example of student activists violating the First Amendment,” he claims. “Indeed, it is hard to imagine how they could do so, given that the latter proscribes government abridgment of speech while student activists are private citizens.”

Carpenter, however, makes no mention of protesters’ calls for infringements on free speech, such as censorship of student newspapers.

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Similarly, he does not mention University of Missouri communications professor Melissa Click, who was caught on video calling for students to provide “muscle” to help evict photojournalists attempting to cover the public protests at the university’s campus last fall.

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“Many seem to confuse ‘free speech’ with some banal notion of civility, forgetting that the very freedoms they invoke to defend racist drivel permit anti-racists to respond—whether by calling someone out or calling for their resignation,” Carpenter continues.

He denies that the exercise of free speech by both group creates “equivalence between racists and anti-racists,” however, noting that the former are guilty of hate speech, because “walking into a white supremacist society and shouting racial slurs” is no different from yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. While “it has become almost a truism that there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment,” Carpenter asserts that this is a fairly recent development, and that courts have historically found that there are limits to derogatory speech, such as libel.

Rejecting the old childhood adage that “sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you,” he retorts that “Words hurt as much as actions; indeed, words are actions,” because “within the context of white supremacy, any distinction between a defaced poster, a racist pamphlet, and legal or extralegal murder can be only of degree.”

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Yet he also expresses skepticism that hate speech legislation would be an effective solution, questioning whether “the very government quite literally built on white supremacy could somehow save us from its effects,” and saying individuals need to take matters into their own hands.

“Rather than relying on the state to censure hate speech, anti-racists can assume that task—calling out and shouting down every expression of white supremacy as we work to build a genuinely free society,” he suggests. “In the meantime, we can construct safe spaces for ourselves where hatred is barred at the door.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @FrickePete