Guest Commentary

Civility and debate, not censorship, to counter hate speech

People are rightly alarmed and saddened by what happened recently in Charlottesville, Va. A small number of individuals from the fringes of political discourse accomplished their mission of being seen as a group and drawing attention to their hateful message. This is but one form of many hate messages by white supremacists — none of which can be accepted.

As president of Northwest Missouri State University, I stand with our students, faculty, staff, leaders, alumni and partners in support of civility, diversity and inclusion in opposition to such hate. Violence, bigotry, hate and discrimination have no place in our society and certainly not in our nation’s colleges and universities.

The white nationalists, neo-Nazis, members of the KKK and other free-willing individuals standing side-by-side with those groups who descended upon Charlottesville, took advantage of the First Amendment’s protection for freedom of speech — a protection that has been critical to progressive causes such as women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement. In light of these hate groups’ more recent tactics, some have called for First Amendment freedoms to be narrowed or for the government to broadly censor their speech. These calls go too far. They are shortsighted and run counter to the principles on which our country was founded.

At Northwest, we stand by freedom of speech. It must be resolutely defended, even when a small number use it to spew hate. Rather than censorship, the best defense for the vast majority of citizens who love their neighbors and value diversity is to speak up. We are not obliged to stand idly by and listen in silence. The First Amendment protects our right to denounce this vile speech, to discredit it and to ultimately fight it with speech of our own.

Intercultural competence, along with respect and integrity, are central to our university values. We prepare our students to live and work in a diverse and inclusive environment, and our campus expectations include possessing the characteristics that are part of being Northwest Bearcats. Bearcats learn. Bearcats connect. Bearcats care. Bearcats practice civility. Bearcats show pride. We will discuss, act upon and uphold our cultural values and expectations.

When we see hateful and bigoted speech on social media, we at Northwest Missouri State will counter it with speech espousing respect and human dignity for all. When we hear bigoted and discriminatory views at the workplace or in our family, we need not suffer it, but should and will speak out and offer a more productive perspective. When a small group gathers with racist signs to march at the courthouse or on campus, we will gather — peacefully and safely — and demonstrate for equality. All are welcome at Northwest Missouri State University — including those who wish to protest. When protests come our way, we work to create an environment so protests can be productive, yet safe.

We all share common ties, and we are a people joined together as one species on a tiny spec in a vast universe that we are all incredibly fortunate to inhabit. At Northwest, we will continue focusing on campus and community civility and dignity for all — both throughout this academic year and into the future. Our call to action for educational institutions at every level, as well as partners from all sectors in every corner of our great country, is simple. Join us in helping craft and deliver a more civil and respectful tone and discourse as we uphold human dignity. Join us as we uplift education that champions diversity, models civility and promotes engagement and action in matters that are of supreme consequence for today and for generations to come.

We are welcoming our students, faculty and staff back this week to Northwest and our community. With them, we have the power to change the world for the better. We have the ability to speak out against hate in a productive and peaceful manner. We have the power to forge unity in the face of evil. We have the strength and courage to do what is right. We as a people have the ability to drown out the seeds of hate and sow the seeds of love.

In conclusion, here’s my direct response to the message of supremacy espoused by white nationalists, neo-Nazis and all individuals willing to stand alongside any such groups who made their way to Charlottesville and attempted to congregate in Boston:

Your hateful and bigoted views have no place in our society. All people of goodwill should condemn for what you stand. We will continue to do so — with civility — until our message of dignity, inclusivity and respect for all — indeed the importance of lifelong education, learning and growth — drowns out your hate as we honor the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “A nation's culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.”

Gandhi aptly guides us that we all must be the change that creates a better tomorrow. Join us as we stand against hate and evil as Bearcat Nation.

Dr. John Jasinski is president of Northwest Missouri State University.