First Amendment View: Denial is protected, yet destructive

Editor’s Note: Students in the spring 2020 First Amendment seminar class (JL MC 497D) attended a lecture titled “How to be an Antiracist” by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi for the Martin Luther King, Jr., Legacy Convocation in January at Iowa State University. They were asked to reflect on concepts of free speech and racism. This post reflects the student’s viewpoints and has been published on the Greenlee student experience blog with permission. 

By Josh Lamberty (’20 journalism and mass communication)

Today’s American society is filled with racist, hateful and offensive speech. Microaggressions are evident in everyday conversation, often harming the recipient rather than promoting a viewpoint.

As Dr. Ibram X. Kendi argued in his lecture, “How to Be an Antiracist,” that denial holds us back from advancing to an antiracist society. “Americans commonly look in the mirror and find a not-racist,” he said. When we are challenged on racist or otherwise hurtful speech, we get defensive – we deny it.”

Kendi shared a firsthand experience of how denial contributes to racism in American culture: His own attempts to serve underrepresented people fueled his belief that he was progressive, a revolutionary. Following reflection, though, Kendi noted he was wrong about how his actions affected those around him.

“To say something is wrong with a racial group is to say something is inferior about a racial group,” Kendi said. “I didn’t realize I was serving up racist ideas about my people to my people.”

Rather than deny, he acknowledged.

A key takeaway from Kendi’s lecture is the definition of racism. “We define racism in a way that exonerates us,” he said. To that end, everyone defines racism differently, which can be applied to their own life and how they view the speech and actions of others. Because of this ambiguity in racism’s definition, racism and stereotypes are perpetuated throughout our society. Kendi argues that standardized tests perpetuate racism, since they are “used regularly to exclude people; make them feel that they’re less-than because they scored less than on a test.” Policy reform often isn’t effective, Kendi argued, because racial policies lead to injustice. He said using racial language doesn’t make governmental or legal policy any less racist.

So, what is an antiracist?

Kendi argued, and I agree, that antiracists level cultures in our society, recognizing that we are all the same. Kendi said antiracists see cultural difference, understand and appreciate that difference, and promote cultural difference. Kendi argued again, and I concur, that the best way to be an antiracist is to acknowledge when we make a racist comment or engage in other forms of racism, however difficult that may be.

The First Amendment provides clear definition of our rights to affirm or deny our belief of racist speech, both personally and for others:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” –Bill of Rights

In federally funded places, like Iowa State, the government or administration cannot deliberately censor my speech or views. On a college campus, for example, where core values include diversity, equity, equality and inclusion, the First Amendment protects everyone’s speech and views on an issue. Unfortunately, to students, this often looks like the college or university isn’t taking discrimination or racism seriously – almost that they’re denying it’s a problem.

In the Fall 2019 semester, a floor sign was vandalized in Geoffroy Hall (where I worked as a community adviser) to include a racial slur, derogatory towards Mexican Americans. The CA for that community is someone who identifies as Mexican American. About one week later, that same slur defaced a flier posted to solicit feedback for how we, the staff, can make that community stronger and more inclusive. Within two weeks of that incident, an individual yelled that same racial slur in the hallway.

In this situation, because the incidents happened in university-owned housing, little could be done to remove the student from the community. Doing so would violate the student’s right to free speech. Yet, the student’s choice of language and use of racial slurs is inappropriate, hurtful and damaging to the affected CA and other community members. It also negatively reflects on the Geoffroy Hall community.

We feel helpless. But we aren’t.

Other aspects of the First Amendment are present in this situation. The CA utilized their freedom of press to publish social media posts and sit down for interviews with two local television stations and a local newspaper. Similarly, this person exercised their right to petition the university for grievances and immediate action, while also assembling as a participant in the Students Against Racism protests. This shows just how much the First Amendment allows us in just one aspect of our life.

Throughout Dr. Kendi’s lecture, education and admission were common themes. As a public institution, Iowa State cannot censor speech. But non-censorship does not mean the institution condones the speech or denies that racist speech took place. Unfortunately, this reality tends to create an impasse for parties who want to feel heard, understood and that their rights are protected and upheld.

While the institution cannot punish a particular viewpoint of speech, it can provide additional education on racism. Requiring students to take diversity and humanities coursework of their choosing is one way to experience, in a limited capacity, alternative worldviews.

Because of my identity as a white, cisgender, able-bodied, heterosexual male, I am afforded a privileged worldview. I don’t often need to think about how others perceive me because I hold many predominant U.S. cultural identities. I can think of several instances where I have used microaggressions unintentionally but have offended a group of people in the room. What good am I doing if I deny when I use racist speech or hear it on campus? I may be exercising my freedom of speech, but it certainly isn’t helping solve our problem.

Complete censorship isn’t the answer, and I believe Dr. Kendi would agree. Active engagement with, acceptance and appreciation for human difference is key to protecting everyone’s First Amendment rights. We hear so much of the change needed to policy, speech and attitudes in our media. The problem is the continued denial of privileged worldviews and beliefs. Change is only possible when our efforts to deny are replaced with even stronger efforts to understand.

Josh Lamberty is a recent graduate in journalism and mass communication at the Greenlee School. Originally from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, Lamberty hopes to work in local television news somewhere in the Midwest.