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Sy Stokes addresses how to support students in the face of hate speech on college campuses

By Emily Rosenberg


Sy Stokes gave a keynote address for the annual Olivia A. Davidson Voices of Color program and highlighted ways to support marginalized students when hate speech appears on campus on March 30 via Zoom and in The Forum.


The event was organized by the Center for Inclusive Excellence and Arts & Ideas.


Stokes is currently the vice president at Coqual, a non-profit think tank focused on advancing equity in the workplace. He was previously a postdoctoral fellow for the National Center for Institutional Diversity and a lecturer at the College of Education at the University of Michigan.


He began by discussing the history of freedom of speech in the United States. He said particularly in recent years during Donald Trump’s presidency, people have used the First Amendment to protect themselves while spewing hate.


Stokes referenced the “danger test,” a practice courts use when determining legality in free speech cases. He gave the examples of Schenck v. United States and Doe v. University of Michigan, where the Supreme Court ruled on the basis of whether the speech was intended to harm or endanger.


He said due to the history, campus speech codes regulating racist speech were struck down by the court because a public university cannot constitutionally prohibit the expression of racist ideas.


Stokes added “free speech purists” believe giving the government the power to punish people for their racist speech will lead to a subjective form of censorship.


“If we regulate hate speech to protect the minority, it will inevitably end up as the weapon for the majority,” Stokes said. “The cure has arguably become worse than the disease.”


He cited the censorship of anti-slavery pamphlets during the Civil War, and censorship of NAACP newspapers during the Civil Rights Movement as examples of how the government cannot be trusted to regulate free speech.


Stokes said while the consequences of hate speech are not a topic for debate when he has to worry about whether his grandmother will be “safe coming home from the store every day,” and students worry for their safety, it is important to recognize that surrendering the right to all speech may have the opposite effect.


He provided a quote from Charles R. Lawrence III, “Freedom of speech is the life blood of our

democratic system. It is a freedom that enables us to persuade others to our point of view. Free speech is especially important for minorities because often it is their only vehicle for rallying support for redress of their grievances.”


Stokes then emphasized the power imbalance in discussions about hate speech in free speech.


“There is an asymmetrical relationship between racially minoritized students on one hand and the perpetrators of racist hate speech on the other,” he said.


Citing Mari Matsuda, a prominent critical race theorist, he said victims of hate speech experience physiological symptoms and emotional stress including post traumatic stress disorder, difficulty breathing, hypertension, and suicide among other serious issues.


“Not everyone has known the experience of being victimized by racist, misogynist, and homophobic speech and we do not share equally the societal harm it inflicts,” Stokes said.


This is the reason why it is convenient for racists, homophobes, misogynists, and others who share close-minded opinions to stand behind the free speech purist beliefs and engage in their behavior without consequence, he said.


“How do you account for power when the First Amendment does not?” he asked.


He emphasized the importance of protecting intellectual safety which he defined as the “necessary intellectual risks that students must take to learn about different opinions.”


He said the current generation of higher education students are more concerned with protecting their peers than any generation before which has increased student activism.


Therefore, while invited speakers and differing opinions should be welcomed to protect intellectual safety, any speech sponsored by such speakers that is an “affront to one’s dignity and humanity” should not be legitimized by an institution, Stokes said.


He said in the context of higher education, predominantly white institutions with white staff and administrations unconsciously and consciously protect free speech codes without ever having experienced the personal effects of hate speech themselves.


Stokes referenced Charles Murray, the author of “The Bell Curve,” which uses pseudo-scientific evidence to prove that African Americans, Hispanics, indigenous people, and women are not among that wealthy elite because their IQs are lower due to genetic differences which make them “inferior.”


He said although these claims are racist and do not have any basis, Murray is still being invited to college campuses to speak to students. He added speakers who embody racist ideas signal to students of color that institutions would “rather defend free speech than their own students’ lives.”


Stokes shared a quote from a study he did involving students from anonymous California colleges about how inviting speakers to campus affects students of color.


“There is no reason why we should allow either explicitly or implicitly racist speakers to come here. But we do because campus officials believe it’s valuable to have that view point because they think we don’t hear enough of it.”


Stokes transitioned to discuss incidents on the Framingham State campus and the different roles faculty, administrators, and students can take to support their students when hate speech is expressed on campus.


He said responding to hate speech incidents with “all students matter” or broad language such as phrases like “inclusivity” signals to the specific marginalized groups that they do not understand their history and thus the statements become about “everyone and no one at once.”


Stokes added another effective way to respond is to involve those who are victimized when deciding the next step.


“It is simple. If you want to know how to most effectively support your students, ask your students,” he said.


He said the final most effective response is to hire more staY of color. Students of color are less likely to use counseling resources when they do not feel represented, he said.


However, while this response is on an organizational level and it takes time, a more immediate approach would be to reach out to the affected groups and organize a space for collective healing.


He ended his keynote speech by returning to the dilemma of free speech.


“What do you want the future generations of students to see when they look back on this historical moment? What do you want potential staff, faculty, and administrative hires of color to see when they question whether their lives were protected by this institution when they get here?” he asked.


“If you have the freedom of speech, you must be willing to spring freedom into existence.”

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