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Rutgers grapples, at town hall, with fine line between hate speech and First Amendment

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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Amidst a rash of bias and hate speech incidents on campus in the past week, university officials and the Rutgers student government hear​d​ from students ​about potential hate groups on campus.

The town hall, hosted November 2 by the Rutgers University Student Assembly, also served as a chance for university officials to draw a line between hate speech and freedom of expression.

Four panelists​ participated: Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Dr. Felicia McGinty, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Dr. Anne Newman, Rutgers law professor Dean Ronald Chen and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Salvador Meno.

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“What we’re seeing now is probably going to be the new normal, there are hate groups that are targeting college campuses,” McGinty​ said​. “They want to instill fear and they want to recruit.”

Rutgers ​University ​is still reeling from three separate hate speech and bias incidents the week before Halloween. In one incident, White supremacist recruitment flyers were posted around campus, along with a flyer that read “Black lives don’t matter.”

During another incident, a Nazi swastika was graffitied outside a dorm on College Avenue, while in another incident, allegations surfaced that a Rutgers professor shared dozens of anti-Semitic posts on his Facebook.

“I still don’t feel comfortable with that person being open with their views about how they feel about me,” said Rutgers junior Destiny Boynton. “A good portion of students feel threatened.”

Boynton added that, as an African American woman, she’s felt particularly threatened at times, and has had to worry about her own safety.

“If I’m by myself, I don’t know what I could do to defend myself,” Boynton said.

Hopefully, Meno said, the university would be able to intervene with someone who openly expressed biased views, such as anti-Semitic or racists views​.

​However, the university has had to maintain a fine line between on the one hand, being content-neutral and support a student organization’s right to exist, and on the other hand, sending a clear message of the university’s values​.​

“What I believe we’ve made very clear, our values with respect to diversity and inclusion,” McGinty said, “I believe that every student that comes to Rutgers has those conversations from the very beginning, when you come to New Student Orientation.”

McGinty added that despite Rutgers being targeted by groups like Identity Evropa, which posted the ​White supremacist recruitment flyers, the university could come together and send a strong message that would ward off such groups.

“We don’t want students to be walking around here being in fear, feeling like this is not their institution,” Meno said.

The university would be able to hopefully get a conversation going and push these views out of the campus, McGinty said, adding that such views don’t reflect the values of the university.

But other students remained unconvinced, and even afraid, such as Josue Serranto, an undocumented immigrant and co-president of undocuRutgers.

“Last week, 36 people were taken from Middlesex County by ICE agents,” Serranto said, in an emotional speech to the panelists. “Those W​hite supremacists, those neo-Nazis, who are already here and you see all these posters, they are the ones who are inviting ICE agents.”

“The common theme for last night, I felt, was it is up to us to see how we can produce the change we want,” added Rutgers student Jessamyn Bonafe. “I understand the collaboration, but I don’t know if that’s enough.”

Bonafe credited some of her own activist efforts as making change, such as when protesters disrupted a lecture on campus by the controversial Milo Yiannopoulus in 2016, or the push for a cultural competency requirement in the curriculum.

“I think we as a community need to continue to stand together because we forget how powerful student power is,” Bonafe said.

Boynton, along with third-​year student Joshua Cox, both of whom were members of the Rutgers NAACP and RMW Foundation, said they also felt that their activist efforts have resulted in positive change.

Also at issue was the exact extent of what constitutes hate speech and what the university can legally do about bias incidents, according to Chen.

“Hate speech, it’s a term we use a lot, but in legal doctrine, hate speech is not really a term that has much meaning,” Chen said. “The First Amendment says Congress shall pass no law infringing upon freedom of speech.”

“The courts have made clear that we cannot define speech we don’t protect in terms of how offensive someone will find them,” Chen added.

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