Commentary: Is banning inflammatory speech necessary?

This editorial appeared in The (Raleigh) News & Observer.

No right-minded person would condone the now-infamous thoughts written on N.C. State University's Free Expression Tunnel. Four students were caught (on camera) in a stupid and outrageous act of scrawling racist and threatening comments about President-elect Barack Obama. What those students did was bad enough to involve the U.S. Secret Service, which justifiably looks hard at any such threats. The incident has embarrassed the university. What the students did was wrong -- horribly wrong.

Understandably, the University of North Carolina system, under President Erskine Bowles, wants to avoid a repetition of such behavior. But in assigning a commission to look at whether the system should establish a code that blocks "hate speech," Bowles is treading on shaky ground. The students were not charged in the incident -- though the university is likely to take disciplinary action -- in part because of the place where they did their dirty work, in a tunnel dedicated by definition to free speech.

What the university system can and should do is to rule out of bounds any message that explictly threatens violence. Direct advocacy of violence goes beyond free speech; it may incite murderous acts. (One of N.C. State students wrote that Obama should be shot in the head.) Beyond that, however, Bowles would himself be going into a tunnel with no end.

What is hate speech? How would it be defined? Who would define it? Would punishment vary depending upon the degree of the offense -- and who would determine those different degrees? Would the university find itself in one legal dispute after another with students defending themselves on free speech grounds? The questions just seem endless.

To read the complete editorial, visit The (Raleigh) News & Observer.