This is not a job for law enforcement.
The president of Santa Monica College is instructing students to file a report with campus police if they witness hate speech.
“Recently an outside visitor brought hate speech onto one of Santa Monica College’s campuses,” states a letter that SMC President Kathryn E. Jeffery sent to students and employees on May 3. “This will not be tolerated.”
“If you are the target of hate speech or witness it, you should immediately contact the Santa Monica College Police Department at (310) 434-4300 or submit an anonymous report to campus police via the LiveSafe app or www.smc.edu/Anonymous-Reporting,” the message continued. “Do not engage with the individual causing such an incident.”
According to an article in the New York Post, the “hate speech” incident cited in the email involved a lot more than just speech — the suspect was charged with misdemeanor battery for physically attacking a younger black woman in the parking lot. Police were reportedly investigating it as a hate crime because the suspect had also hurled racist insults at her.
An incident like that, of course, is absolutely something that the police should handle. But hate speech? Although it may be awful, it’s not a crime. What’s more, according to Campus Reform, college spokeswoman Grace Smith even acknowledged this fact in an interview with the outlet. Despite that acknowledgment, however, Smith still insisted that the reporting of hate speech to the police was important because those kinds of incidents are “considered a serious breach of community expectations,” which “need to be reported to allow for appropriate investigation.”
“Hate speech can lead to violence, and the role of campus police is to preserve peace,” Smith said.
That may sound nice and sweet, but Smith is not exactly correct. The role of the police is actually not to “preserve peace.” That’s far too broad. The role of the police is actually very specific; their role is to deal with crimes. There’s a huge difference between the two. For example: The last time I got into a tiff with one of my friends, things weren’t exactly peaceful, but I knew that I wasn’t supposed to call 911 about it. Santa Monica College may think that this kind of reporting system is a good way to keep a finger on the pulse of the campus climate, but I feel like it seems more like a good way to keep the police distracted with a backlog of personal complaints, especially since the system allows for anonymous reporting.
What’s more, this policy could give students the idea that hate speech is somehow illegal or unconstitutional. Sure, Smith may have acknowledged that it’s not, however, it’s already something that far too many college students don’t seem to understand. In fact, a recent survey found that only 39 percent of college students know that hate speech is protected speech.
It is the job of the administration, not the police, to deal with hate speech.
It’s important for college students to understand that hate speech is protected speech — and the reasons why that’s a good thing. In fact, the only reason we have free speech in this country is because hate speech remains legal. After all, when you give the government the power to punish “hate speech,” you’re also giving the government the power to decide what qualifies as acceptable speech. Our speech wouldn’t be free, it would be subject to the whims of the people in power.
Now, I do of course understand that the campus police force does not actually have the power to punish any student or employee based on one of these “hate speech” reports. That would be unconstitutional. But honestly, the fact that students are even being asked to file them is scary enough. Think about it: The college is essentially telling these students that speech does fall under the jurisdiction of the police; that the things that you say should be scrutinized by the state, that it is the state’s job to scrutinize them. Even if they don’t have the power to do anything about it, that’s still terrifying stuff.
Racist, sexist, and other hateful speech is awful, and there should definitely be resources available to students on campus who want to report these types of incidents. The truth is, though, it is the job of the administration, not the police, to deal with them. Encouraging students to file police reports over speech is at best a waste of time and resources — at worst, it conveys a complete disrespect for our country’s devotion to separating speech from law enforcement.