LSU Profs Want To Drop Students For 'Hate Speech'

Science prof's tweet sparks First Amendment debate at public university

Louisiana State University / Getty Images
June 10, 2020

A Louisiana State University assistant professor promised to keep an ongoing list of students who engage in "hate speech" and pledged to drop them from her classes.

Video showing a white incoming LSU freshman using the n-word stoked controversy over how colleges should handle individuals who use racial epithets. LSU tweeted that the university condemns "hate and bigotry in any form, including racially incendiary remarks." The tweet noted that as a publicly funded college, LSU is subject to uphold the First Amendment. Biological Sciences assistant professor Alyssa Johnson said she will take action into her own hands if LSU will not revoke the student's admission.

In a since-deleted tweet, Johnson said she will keep a list of names of students who engage in "hate speech" and drop them from her courses. "It's not just free speech, it's hate speech and it's a threat to student safety. #safespace #BlackLivesMatter," Johnson said.

LSU associate professor William Doerrler responded to Johnson's deleted tweet signaling his support for dropping the incoming LSU student. "Thank you!! If he enrolls in my class I'll drop him too," Doerrler said. Johnson and Doerrler did not respond to requests for comment. According to the LSU Faculty Handbook, faculty have no authority to drop a student who is properly registered in their class.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment protects even bigoted remarks, but speech codes have been implemented at many private and public universities. The definition of "hate speech" has also grown in scope to include some conservative slogans. A College Pulse survey found that 60 percent of college students believe "offensive jokes" can be a form of hate speech.

Some students expressed concern that allowing professors to drop students from their classes due to offensive speech would silence conservatives. The LSU College Republicans worries that Johnson’s standard could be enforced arbitrarily. "Removing students from classes for undefined 'hate speech' would put at risk the integrity of LSU's world-class learning environments," said club president Grant Scheeringa. "It is the job of the University to expand students' knowledge, not condemn them on the basis of Prof. Johnson's personal opinion."

Free speech groups also said Johnson’s pledge runs afoul of the rights of students at public universities. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) said professors at a public university cannot refuse to teach students because of a disagreement on speech. "Faculty members at public institutions properly possess the academic freedom to guide discussions within their classrooms," spokeswoman Katlyn Patton told the Washington Free Beacon. "But, they cannot refuse to teach students simply because they disagree with their extramural speech or views."

Johnson's comments have sparked a larger conversation about whether universities should alter speech codes. Former LSU law professor Paul Baier told the Free Beacon that he does not believe the freedom of speech should allow racists to bring their ideas to a university campus. "To be completely free to advocate [racism] without any kind of consequences ... if that's the scope of free speech, it's asinine," he said. Baier defined "hate speech" as specific racist, prejudiced words, such as the n-word. He does not classify slogans with "suggestive motivation"—such as "MAGA"—as hate speech.

Others argued that even reprehensible speech is protected by the First Amendment. LSU political science professor James Stoner distinguished between speech that can interpreted as a "general threat" and remarks that constitute a true threat to individual safety. "The First Amendment does not include the right to threaten. It has to be a true threat though, not a general threat," Stoner said. "The problem is, of course, hate speech restrictions have had a tendency to go way beyond that and suppress discussion of opinions that are not meant to be threatening, other than politically."

The student group LSU Against Racism said it stands behind Johnson's promise to drop students who engage in "hate speech." The group told the Free Beacon it understands free speech is protected by federal law, but does not believe such speech should be protected on campuses that have a "Code of Student Conduct." It lobbies the university to change its hate speech code.

"Any language that targets others in a manner so vicious, like a slur, should not ever be protected at the university because it alienates a huge portion of the student body and puts them in an unsafe environment," an LSU Against Racism spokesperson said.

After a meeting with black student leaders, LSU announced it will investigate and take action against racist language. This will include the incoming freshman who used the n-word. The university announced it will meet with student leaders to "ensure LSU is a safe, welcoming and inclusive university." The university did not respond to requests for comment nor has the administration publicly commented on Johnson's tweet.