There is a controversy brewing over free speech at Wake Forest University where an Instagram post has triggered an investigation. The Winston-Salem Journal reports that the “racist” posting encouraged students to vote for a candidate for student body president. It read: “He wants to build a wall between Wake and Winston-Salem State and he’ll make them pay for it.” While the university’s president Nathan Hatch described it as a possible “parody”, an investigation was still launched. That has raised objections from students who complain of a chilling effect on speech under such rules.
The student candidate had nothing to do with the posting.
The question is where the line is drawn today on such issues of free speech and parody. The university posts the following definition:
“Verbal abuse is the use of obscene, profane, or derogatory language that abuses or defames another person. Harassment is any action, verbal or nonverbal, that annoys or disturbs another person or that causes another person to be reasonably apprehensive or endangers the health or safety of another person.”
We have previously discussed these speech codes and how ambiguous terminology chills speech. To include anything that “annoys or disturbs another person” is quite sweeping. The limitation imposed by the “reasonably” qualifier does little to reinforce free speech norms.
Hatch wrote that The university is “gathering details about this incident” through a team investigation led by Dean of Students Adam Goldstein.
The Wake Forest Anti-Racism Coalition, however, criticized Hatch for even raising the issue of parody as insisted that it was a “racist dog whistle deployed to embolden white supremacy. The author of the post knew what they were doing. Call racism by its name.”
It could also be parody. The wall language is now a common part of our lexicon and discourse, including parodies meant as critical of President Trump. The question is whether it warrants this level of investigation. Obviously, my tendency in such disputes is to err on the side of free speech. Yet, from the perspective of the university, various students raised a formal complaint over experiencing intimidating or language. The university accordingly launched an investigation. Part of the concern, however, is that the rule itself imposes sanctions on language for how it is received as opposed to how it is intended. For civil libertarians, free speech requires bright lines to avoid chilling effects from speech codes. Yet, many academics believe that a safe space for learning requires protection from intimidating speech — whether intended or unintended.
What do you think?