Opening Remarks: Fighting Hate While Preserving Freedom

Remarks delivered at symposium Fighting Hate While Preserving Freedom: A Best Practices Forum
Rutgers University
March 27, 2018

The topic of this symposium is Fighting Hate While Preserving Freedom. There are many different kinds of hate we could talk about, from race to gender to sexual orientation. We could talk about political views, we could talk about points of argument with ethnicity. We’re not going to talk about all of those today. Some of those have been the topic of other conversations we’ve had on campus recently. Today we’re going to talk about the context of religious and ethnic bias.

We’ve chosen that topic today for a number of reasons. We have witnessed in the last 12 to 18 months a rise in public expression of hate and intolerance in this country that peaks at a level I have seen only several times in the fifty or so years that I have been in higher education. This time we can’t let it continue. This time we have to make sure we are proactive and not simply reactive. This time we’re seeing targeting of ethnic groups and religious groups in a way that we simply cannot allow to go unanswered.

We have seen it on college campuses, and that involves defamation in speech, defacement of walls with swastikas, dissemination of bigoted memes, acts of violence, and hate speech in the guise of political activism around campus. These expressions of hate and intolerance have absolutely no role at a campus like ours—absolutely no role—and we have to speak out when we see anti-Semitism, or we see Islamophobic comments, and say no, this is not Rutgers, this is not what we believe, this is not where we should be.

On the other hand, that’s not to say that in an institution of nearly 100,000 students, faculty, and staff, we’re not going to see those things. That would be naive. That would be unrealistic. The question isn’t, how do we eliminate them from the campus, the question is how do we deal with them when they come up? How do we act, how do we behave? And our first instinct might be to shut them down—shut down those expressions of hatred and those who espouse them. But the best tonic is to treat speech with speech and take on challenging conversations like we’re doing today, with conversations about our differences.  The winner of those battles is not the ones who shout the loudest, it’s not about shouting somebody down and preventing them from having a conversation. It’s about standing up for civility and tolerance and making our point of view absolutely clear.

This is especially true here in America, where we treat the right to free speech, along with equality and the pursuit of happiness, as essential to our status as a nation. If we really believe that, then we have to act that way. If we really believe that, then we have to treat other people that way, and we have to have those conversations while we allow the conversation to take place.  

We have a special obligation in a state-related university because as you read the First Amendment, you know that much of that pertains to the state, and what the state may or may not do. We’re in a position, unlike private colleges or private corporations, that we cannot turn away speakers simply because we do not like the ideas that they express. We cannot fire employees or expel students because we find their views offensive. We cannot do that.

We have an obligation to be a forum for the free expression of ideas. We must foster, encourage, and ready our community to engage with the divergent views. It’s not just to say no, we disavow them, but you have to engage with them, you have to have the conversation. You have to move the conversation forward—which is exactly what we’re trying to do today.

And what we should be doing as a university is setting the goal, setting the bar, for how others in our country should deal with these difficult issues. I don’t want to be a university president who can get up and say, we don’t have any of that at Rutgers, we don’t have any of that kind of speech, we don’t have any of those actions at Rutgers. That’s nonsense. Of course we’re going to have that, as any society would. To say that we don’t would be to say that we have a repressive culture on this campus toward the expression of ideas. That is anathema to me.

But at the same time we have to absolutely clear that we do not accept those kinds of ideas, we do not accept bias, we do not accept hate speech, as representative of what Rutgers is or what we feel. We have to be able to get up and say no, I hear what you say, but that’s not the way we are here. The discussion takes place, you can say what you want to say, but we’re saying, it doesn’t happen here. We’re not going to allow it to happen here. It is not going to take over our conversation and the way we behave.

We’re going to be talking today about how we fight hate in a number of venues: we are going to talk about it in regard to houses of worship, in our community, and online. We’re going to focus on ethnic and religious areas of intolerance. And this is the start of a conversation. As I said before, there is no guarantee, nor is there the expectation, that we won’t have to deal with this tomorrow, or next month, or next year. The expectation is that we will come up with the mechanisms of doing that dealing; we’ll come up with the personal mechanisms of how we cope, how we address it, how we treat it as a community. Frankly, I want to be judged as a university not on whether such acts happen, but on how we deal with them, and what they say about us as a community.

I’m looking forward to hearing the best practices today and moving this process forward.