Responsible free speech
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Self-censorship is important for derogatory speech
As a constitutional law professor and as a civil rights advocate, I believe strongly that the UNLV campus community must safeguard the right of free speech of students, faculty and staff.
We are an intellectual community and it is through the diversity of ideas and perspectives that we learn from each other and create a community of knowledge that enriches all of us.
A campus should loathe censoring any idea just because we disagree with it or find it distasteful. For this reason, I opposed the draft speech code that Founding Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion, Chris Clark, proposed for the campus last spring.
Free speech has been very important in the history of civil rights and social justice in the U.S. It is because of free speech rights that Cesar Chavez was able to picket the grape growers outside their fields in California for fair wages without getting arrested for trespass.
When NAACP leader Charles Evers urged followers to boycott white stores in Alabama, he used colorful and hyperbolic political speech (“If we catch any of you going in any of them racist stores, we’re gonna break your damn neck…”).
The First Amendment protected him from being thrown in jail.
But there is another side to speech.
Derogatory speech, when directed at minorities, women and gay men and lesbians, can reinforce ideas that fuel discrimination and reinforce cultural stereotypes that set up one group as being inferior as against the majority.
In a campus environment where everyone’s voice should be valued and where all voices belong in vigorous debate, we must be careful to act in a way that is truly inclusive.
About three years ago, an anti-immigration group took out a billboard ad at the corner of Bonanza and Eastern, an area that is more than 50 percent Latina/o. It depicted a rising “brown tide” taking over a map of the U.S., with the words “stop immigration.”
Under the First Amendment, the City of Las Vegas could not pass an ordinance prohibiting the ad.
However, the mayor of Las Vegas asked the commercial company providing the billboard space to exercise self-censorship. Mayor Oscar Goodman argued that this ad reflected badly on Las Vegas and the spirit of tolerance of which Las Vegans are rightly proud.
Goodman added that Las Vegas valued its Latino immigrants and that they were an important part of this community. This company agreed and the ad came down within days.
As this “real life” story shows, the most important part of free speech is self-censorship. Media exercise self-censorship because they understand that they have a responsibility to be an accessible speech forum while ensuring that ideas are expressed accurately, fairly and respectfully.
The Rebel Yell, as an independently run student newspaper, controls the content of the newspaper. The Rebel Yell’s student management can legally decline advertisement placements that they find to be not in the best interest of the publication and its audience.
The “Juicy Lucy” Rebel Yell ad, showing a woman’s hot, naked body with sections of a cow drawn on her (“rump,” “rib” etc) may be amusing for some and it is probably good business for the hamburger joint.
The question for The Rebel Yell and its audience, the campus community, is whether this is the kind of speech that reflects who we are and how we want to be perceived by the outside world.
We should all be able to see the merit of Anthony Guy Patricia’s argument that this ad is demeaning and degrading and reinforces stereotypes of women as something akin to a cow — “tender” enough to be cut up for male pleasure.
Cultural historians argue that it is such commercial images that reinforce discriminatory stereotypes, such as that women can only be taken seriously as objects of desire.
Such stereotypes limit women’s potential because these stereotypes trap women into capacities tied to their “female nature.” Certainly we have moved beyond that kind of thinking; nonetheless, demeaning depictions reinforce lingering negative stereotypes.
The best way to avoid heavy-handed campus speech codes is for all key actors in the campus community to exercise their free speech rights responsibly.
Respectfully, I request that the student management of The Rebel Yell take into account their position of leadership on campus and reconsider whether this ad is responsible speech.