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The Weight of Our Words

April 23, 2018

Nadine Strossen knows that the cover and content of her new book is provocative. The choice was deliberate. The former President of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) hopes to use her latest title, Hate: Why We Should Resist it with Free Speech, Not Censorship, to draw activists' attention as they advocate for human rights issues worldwide.  

Using a presentation of the same name, Strossen offered the audience a deeper understanding of counterspeech - speaking out against ideas one dislikes or disagrees with - and its role in combatting hate crimes and hate speech on April 17.

"Surveys show that many of today's student activists see freedom of speech as an enemy. I know it to be a time-tested and essential ally," she said. "It is a precondition for effectively advancing equality, inclusivity, and diversity."

Though this offers the universal right to speak freely, regardless of content, studies show that the use of counterspeech is a more effective and constitutionally enforced method of resisting and subduing hate than censorship. In fact, Strossen's own research revealed that the strongest anti-hate speech laws - such as those in Germany and France - have done little to advance human rights, rendering the policy "ineffective at best, and counterproductive at worst."

"Laws that empower government to decide that certain words are so hateful or hated that they should not be protected [under the law] are inevitably enforced to the detriment of the very minority groups who hope to be protected by them," she said.

Strossen began her advocacy work as a student at Harvard, and cites her time there as one of great activism amid the Vietnam war and the push for reproductive freedom and civil rights. In subsequent years, she said she's noticed that student activism and engagement was lacking, and found correlating survey data that revealed a disinterest in politics, voting, and human rights activism among college students.

Though this trend has shifted - studies now show that student engagement with human rights has surpassed that of the 1970s - she hopes to use her personal and professional experience to guide today's activists away from censorship as a tool for accomplishing their goals. In particular, she hopes to debunk the idea of "safe spaces" being those for people of one mind.

"You can't take criticism of your ideas as a rejection of you as a person," she said. "We must be open to all expressions and not walk on eggshells. We all may unwittingly offend someone, but we have to take it in good faith that others will help us to improve."

The event was held on behalf of the Office of Student Activities, the School of Social Sciences, Humanities & Education, and the Donahue Institute for Ethics, Diversity, and Inclusion.