Free Speech, Hate Speech, and Syracuse.

I. Hate Speech and Syracuse

On 21 November 2019, the following article by Georgia Slater appeared online in, under the “Crime” sub-heading:

4 Syracuse Students Suspended, 1 Arrested in Fallout from Alleged Racist Incidents

Four students were suspended after a number of alleged racist incidents were recently reported on Syracuse University’s campus, officials announced.

Since Nov. 7, at least 11 hate crimes or bias incidents have been reported on or near the New York school, according to the Daily Orange.

One student was also arrested, according to the Syracuse Police Department.

“Police identified the suspect in connection with four incidents of graffiti in and around the Irving Garage and Bird Library,” the Syracuse P.D. announced in a press release Thursday.

It’s unclear what kind of graffiti the arrested student allegedly posted, but reports that it “appears to be in support of campus protests against a series of racist incidents.”

In its statement, Syracuse P.D. said the Department of Public Safety was investigating four recently reported “bias incidents.” Two of the incidents allegedly involved racist graffiti using “language derogatory to African Americans,” while the other graffiti incidents allegedly used derogatory words against Asian Americans and Native Americans.

News of the four students’ suspension was announced Wednesday evening during a public address by school Chancellor Kent Syverud.

In the briefing, Syverud detailed alleged racist verbal attacks as well as a number of other campus instances of alleged racist and anti-Semitic attacks, according to footage.

Syverud said one of the verbal incidents happened Saturday night when 14 people leaving an Alpha Chi Rho fraternity party allegedly hurled a racial slur at one of the university’s female African American students.

He said four of the students involved in the incident were Syracuse students. The other 10 students were “referred for appropriate discipline, including at the schools they attend,” Syverud noted.

According to the NY Daily News, the four Syracuse students allegedly called the African American student “the N-word.”

In addition to the students’ suspension, the Alpha Chi Rho fraternity has reportedly been expelled from campus, according to the Daily Orange. All activities of the school’s other campus fraternities were also halted.

RELATED: Syracuse University Removes 18 Frat Members From Classes Over Racist and Offensive Videos

“The entire case has also been referred to the Onondaga County District Attorney. The New York State Police’s Hate Crimes Task Force has been partnering with us and we’re working with the New York State Division of Human Rights on this matter,” Syverud added.

During his address, Syverud spoke out about how connected he felt to the incidents.

“I spent six years of my life publicly fighting to permit affirmative action in higher education admission based on race, leading to the Supreme Court’s decision. I did this while raising a mixed-race family in the South.”

“My kids were threatened … my wife was subjected to many racial epithets,” he said, adding, “That was then, that was the South… But this is Syracuse. This is 2019. I do not accept this hatred here and now, this is not who Syracuse is at its best, and is not who we can let ourselves become.”

RELATED: ‘Disgusted’ Fraternity Expels Four University of Georgia Students After Racist Video Surfaces

He continued, “We just cannot let our students of color, our Jewish students, our Asian students, or any of our students, or faculty and staff, be afraid on this campus because of who they are.”

In response to the multiple alleged hate crimes on campus, Syverud also announced Thursday that he met with a group of students to discuss recommendations he received from international students and students who were peacefully protesting.

He said he planned to implement some of the students’ suggestions, stating, “Implementing these recommendations is the right thing to do. They will make our community stronger.”

From a philosophical point of view, how should we be thinking about the Syracuse situation?

II. Free Speech and Hate Speech: A Theory

Free speech is the liberty of unfettered expression in opinion, thought, and lifestyle, hence the liberty to engage in what John Stuart Mill called “experiments of living,”[i] aka, experiments in living, and above all the liberty to express edgy, challenging beliefs and ideas by means of talk, writing, or any other communicative medium.

Free speech has many important goods, including scientific truth, aesthetic beauty, profound artistic or philosophical insight, and authentic self-realization — and their pursuit.

But the highest good of free speech is manifest when we exercise the liberty to engage in peaceful criticism of and protests against violations of respect for human dignity and human oppression, and in peaceful resistance against immoral uses of power.

This morally and politically exemplary kind of free speech is not merely “speaking truth to power,” because, over and above truth per se, it is also ethically-driven and peacefully rebellious.

It’s therefore emancipatory speech.

What rationally justifies free speech?

In On Liberty, chapter II, Mill famously attempts to provide an adequate justification of free speech on Utilitarian grounds.

But Mill’s attempt fails, since it’s always possible that the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, relative to that historical context and relative to what we are capable of doing by way of action in that context, will consist, precisely, in our collectively restricting and suppressing free speech.

Mill tries to finesse this problem by re-defining the concept of utility:

I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.[ii]

Nevertheless, Mill’s “utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being” is nothing like the concept of utility as he defines it in Utilitarianism:

The creed which accepts as the foundations of morals “utility” or the “greatest happiness principle” holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness [i.e., utility] is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness [i.e., disutility], pain and the privation of pleasure…. [P]leasure and freedom from pain are the only things desirable as ends; and … all desirable things … are desirable  either for pleasure inherent in themselves or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.[iii]

Now it’s of course possible to refine the Utilitarian concept of “happiness” or “utility” by defining it in terms of preference-satisfaction, or whatever.

But no matter how the concept of utility is refined, when it’s understood in terms of the greatest happiness principle, it always picks out a certain class of “felicific” or happiness-making consequences for as many people as possible, relative to that agent-centered historical context.

That being so, then the Utilitarian concept of utility has nothing inherently to do either with any person’s “permanent”—that is, innate, universal, unconditional—interests or with any person’s nature as a “progressive being,” which is necessarily underdetermined by, although still consistent with, her actual or possible happiness: namely, a person’s nature as an absolute source of human dignity and as an autonomous moral and political agent, inherently capable of  “enlightenment” in the sense classically formulated by Kant in “What Is Enlightenment?,” namely, one who “dares to be wise” (Sapere aude!), that is, one who dares to think and act for herself/himself/themselves.

From that point of view, the rational justification of free speech would be our unwavering commitments to universal respect for human dignity and autonomy, and to universal resistance to human oppression.

And that in turn entails that the rational justification of free speech is robustly non-consequentialist, dignitarian, autonomy-oriented, liberationist, and broadly Kantian.

Correspondingly, from a robustly non-consequentialist, dignitarian, autonomy-oriented, liberationist, and broadly Kantian point of view, the only moral and political limits of free speech are:

(i) incitement to or triggering of violence,

(ii) slander (that is, malicious, false or at best half-true, and injurious speech) about individuals that destroys their social standing, and

(iii) coercion.

By violence, I mean the use of actually or potentially destructive physical force.

And by coercion I mean:

either (i) using violence (for example, injuring, torturing, or killing) or the threat of violence, in order to manipulate people against their will according to certain predefined purposes of the coercer (primary coercion),

or (ii) inflicting appreciable, salient harm (e.g., imprisonment, termination of employment, or large monetary penalties) or deploying the threat of appreciable, salient harm, even if these are not in themselves violent, in order to manipulate people against their will according to certain predefined purposes of the coercer (secondary coercion).

So all coercion is a form of manipulation, and proceeds by following a variety of strategies, that share the same core characteristic: treating people as mere means or mere things.

In other words, then, the only moral and political limits of free speech are the very things that constitute the highest good of free speech when we use it peacefully to criticize them, protest against them, and resist them, by means of emancipatory speech:

(i) violations of respect for human dignity,

(ii) human oppression, and

(iii) immoral uses of power.

That brings us to hate speech.

Unfortunately, the term “hate speech” is a grab-bag label whose meaning is deeply ambiguous as between two sharply distinct conceptions:

(i) speech that’s actually aimed at specific individuals, whose purpose is inciting or triggering violence towards those people, slandering those people, or coercing those people, all of which is morally impermissible, because it treats people as mere means or mere things, violates their dignity, and undermines their autonomy, and

(ii) speech that some, many, or even most people take to be hateful and repulsive, whether it’s intended to be such or not, even though it’s not speech that’s actually aimed at specific individuals, whose purpose is inciting or triggering violence towards those people, slandering those people, or coercing those people, which is morally permissible.

Let’s call type-(i) speech, evil speech.

And let’s call type-(ii) speech, merely offensive speech.

It’s obvious why evil speech is morally impermissible.

But in turn, the two-part rationale behind holding merely offensive speech to be morally permissible is this.

First, even though merely offensive speech, by definition, is taken to be hateful and repulsive by some, many, or even most people, also by definition it’s not speech that’s actually aimed at specific individuals, whose purpose is inciting or triggering violence towards those people, slandering those people, or coercing those people.

Second, and even more importantly, all sorts of emancipatory free thinking and expression that’s aimed at the highest good of free speech is ALSO taken to be hateful and repulsive—and perhaps it’s ALSO even taken to be downright evil—by some, many, or most corporate capitalists, Statists, coercive moralists, and coercive authoritarians (in short, by powerful elites) more generally; therefore, such emancipatory offensive speech must be morally protected as morally permissible and perhaps even morally obligatory, in the face of the enmity of those powerful elites, even if that means allowing in merely offensive speech at the low end of the moral permissibility bar.

III. Now What?

Now it’s up to you, Dear Reader, to dare to think for yourself, and apply this theory of free speech and hate speech to (what we know so far about) the Syracuse situation.

But obviously, the core of the issue is whether the Syracuse situation involves, on the one hand, evil speech (in which case, it’s morally impermissible), or, on the other hand, merely offensive speech (in which case it’s morally permissible, even if almost everyone would agree it’s hateful and repulsive).

–And of course it’s also possible that the Syracuse situation involves a complex combination of some speech that’s evil (hence morally impermissible), and some other speech that’s merely offensive (hence morally permissible): so we shouldn’t assume that the moral and social reality of the actual situation must be monolithic and simple.[iv]


[i] J.S. Mill, On Liberty (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1978), ch. III, p. 54.

[ii] Mill, On Liberty, Introduction, p. 10.

[iii] J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1979), ch. II, p. 7.

[iv] I’m grateful to Andrew Chapman for extremely helpful correspondence about the topics of this essay.

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