Community Action Talk panelists discuss free speech, hate speech and impact of social media

Panelists from K-State discuss the implications of free speech on students' social media interactions via Zoom. (Lori Leiszler | Collegian Media Group) Photo credit: Lori Leiszler

Panelists discussed community members’ right to exercise free speech in person and through social media during Kansas State’s fourth Community Action Talk on Thursday. The group called attention to a need for speech that promotes social justice amid modern challenges.

K-State general counsel Shari Crittendon moderated the panel and opened by saying discussion of free speech is complicated, especially with the prevalence of social media.

“At the university, there is a [Kansas Board of Regents] policy for employees about social media,” Critendon said. “But there isn’t one for students. There is an issue out there that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ Well, words are hurting.”

April Petillo, assistant professor of American ethic studies, said she’s seen plenty of people claim their freedom of speech to explain away hurtful words.

“The line between free speech and hate speech, in my opinion, has everything to do with understanding what a democracy is,” Petillo said. “It means there’s a responsibility to speak, but there’s also a responsibility to hear.”

The harmful impacts of hate speech on victims are severe and long-lasting, Natalia Rodriguez, junior in human resources management and Spanish, said.

“It’s just not fun to see the people that you care the most about being attacked on social media,” Rodriguez said. “It’s scary to see that people are not held accountable, that those words they said that painfully impacted us are not corrected.”

The panelists heard student concerns and acknowledged the rights students have to express themselves in person and on the expanding platform of social media.

“The First Amendment landscape continues to evolve,” Crittendon said. “But the law has not.”

Nikhil Moro, associate professor of journalism and mass communications, said social pressures on speech can go out the window on social media where anything can be written “under the cloak of anonymity.”

“Just because something is legal or lawful doesn’t necessarily mean it is ethically alright,” Moro said.

Thomas Lane, vice president of student life and dean of students, denounced the actions of a K-State student who tweeted controversial comments earlier this year while also acknowledging the university’s legal inability to restrict hate speech.

“Allowing those in power to determine what’s offensive enough to be regulated actually can end up hurting efforts to promote social justice,” Lane said.

Free speech allows people to express views that might be unpopular or even seem deplorable, except within certain stipulations.

Legality, said Petillo, is just one aspect of free speech. She said community members have the moral responsibility to create justice in the community through their right to free speech.

“Hate speech harms the individuals that speak it and use it — or put it out on the internet — as well as the people who are targeted and the community,” Petillo said.

Panelists encouraged students to use their right to free speech to counter discrimination with compassion.

“Even if we cannot take legal action, we can, as a community, still require accountability, and it does not have to rest on the backs of survivors of racist or homophobic or ableist attacks,” Petillo said.

Rodriguez said for many generations, people just shrugged hate speech off, which is part of the problem.

“If we keep ignoring it, if we don’t address it, if we don’t correct those behaviors, they’re going to keep happening,” Rodriguez said. “I feel like my generation is the first one to stand up for that. We’re not dealing with that anymore, and we want to see an end to it. We’re standing up for ourselves, and we’re creating the change we want to see.”