Constitution Day Discussion: Free Speech on Campus

Sep 17, 2018

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

In honor of Constitution Day, the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa is celebrating with a discussion about free speech on campus. HPR Reporter Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has this story.

Peaceful portests are nothing new to college campuses. Charles Lawrence is a constitutional law professor at the William S. Richardson School of Law. 

“The idea is in our democracy is that all sorts of speech whether we agree with it or disagree with it or its offensive to us or its hateful that we look to more speech in response to that as the way to deal with that speech,” says Lawrence.

But he says he’s recently grown concernedthat the same vehicle protecting free speech may be abused to allow hate speech, which intends to silence and threaten people. And that’s where you draw the line. 

“The first amendment doesn’t protect all kinds of speech even in public forums so that threatening speech is not protected you know? Libelous speech is not protected. There are certain kinds of commercial speech that isn’t protected. But generally, free speech is protected,” says Lawrence.

Professor Lawrence will be discussing the freedom of expression on campus in a Constitution Day panel at UH Mānoa later today. And he says there are a lot of questions. 

“You know what are the limits on speech on campus? And even what responsibility do universities have for protecting some students who are subjected to this speech by other students or by faculty members or even by people outside the campus?” says Lawrence.

International law professor Carole Petersen says the United States stands out when compared to other countries when it comes to freedom of speech. 

“So Canada has laws prohibiting deliberate and public expression of hatred and the United Kingdom has laws along that line and Denmark has laws along that line. And I’m not saying that they’re easy to enforce because whenever they’re enforced the courts do have to be careful to balance legitimate freedom of expression and the importance of debate in a democracy.

Professor Petersen says the answer requires a delicate balance, which we have found in other contexts.

“For example, we have restrictions on freedom of expression in the name of public security. We all know you cannot walk through Honolulu Airport and scream out “bomb”. Right? Well, strictly speaking that’s a restriction on your freedom of expression,” says Petersen, “So if we can find a way to balance public security and freedom of expression I think we should be able to carefully investigate whether it’s possible to offer more protection against expressions of racial hatred and acts of racial harassment.” 

The discussion titled “What Did You Say and Where Did You Say It?: Freedom of Expression At A Public University” begins today at 5:00 p.m. at the William S. Richardson School of Law.