Censoring Bigoted Speech at UC San Diego: Who Does It Help?

In the last few weeks, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) has been tearing itself apart over racial and ethnic issues. The impetus for the turmoil is the “Compton Cookout,” a "ghetto"-themed off-campus party involving a Las Vegas-based African American comedian who calls himself “Jiggaboo Jones.” The controversial party, held last month to "celebrate" Black History Month, was followed by the reported use of a racial slur on UCSD's student television station, the hanging of a noose in the library, and the placement of a “Klan-style” pillowcase on a campus statue of Dr. Seuss, of all people.

In response, UCSD has attempted to silence the “hate speech” on the grounds that it makes other students scared or uncomfortable. Associate Students President Utsav Gupta, apparently with the full backing of UCSD administrators, has frozen funding to 33 campus media outlets in order to silence one of them for making an offensive comment about the reaction to the “Compton Cookout” party on the student-run TV station. While no recording of the statement seems to exist, Kris Gregorian, editor in chief of the student "shock humor" publication The Koala, reportedly called those objecting to the party “ungrateful ni**ers.”

As all Americans know, using the “N-word” is one of the most offensive things you can do in our society. It’s no surprise that people on campus, particularly African American students, would be upset by it. Gupta clearly was, as he acted within hours to shut down the TV station and then froze money to the rest of the student media after the comment. Since then, the student government has held meeting after meeting trying to sort out what should be done about the freeze, but the hold on funds has been maintained.

FIRE and the ACLU of San Diego have sent letter after letter to UCSD demanding that media funds be restored and warning that a lawsuit is sure to follow if they are not. With regard to the law, there can be no doubt that FIRE and the ACLU of San Diego are right -- it is clearly unconstitutional for a public university or its agents to cut funding to a student media organization because of its expression or content. Gupta and UCSD stand no chance of winning in court.

But are Gupta and UCSD right morally? Is it better for a campus and for our society if “hate speech” is outlawed and punished? Isn’t banning such speech worth it, if doing so makes people feel more comfortable and less threatened on campus?

The answer to all these questions is the same: no.

Why? Well, ask yourself: Who benefits from the censorship of racist speech on campus? This question does not receive nearly enough attention.

The university benefits from a public relations standpoint -- censorship of unwanted speech is a quick, easy "cure" and appears to be decisive, effective action. Besides, no college or university wants to look like it is institutionally racist or harbors a bunch of racist students. The student government also "wins" from a PR standpoint, as it has a strong interest in minimizing general divisiveness on campus that might lead to noisy dissent and potentially disruptive protests. Indeed, Gupta cited this “divisiveness” when defending the censorship of the student media, and said he wanted to figure out how to fund student publications without funding “hate speech.”