Feature:Opinion

Can the government mandate that speech not offend?

Photo of Robert Shibley
Robert Shibley
Senior Vice President, FIRE

But while there’s good news out of North Carolina, the First Amendment news out of Ohio is not so good. On a Tumblr blog called OSU Haters, which is apparently run by an Ohio State University student who is dedicated to exposing allegedly hateful Twitter comments by other OSU students, one reads this comment from a “former hater”:

As a consequence of my insensitivity to others at this university, my life was almost flipped upside down. Shortly after my comments I was contacted by the university that a hold had been put on my account and that I needed to meet with them immediately. … I was informed that I could be kicked out of Ohio State permanently with an official note being put on any other school I applied to about my comments. … I agreed to regular counseling about hate speech, safe ways to vent my frustration, and the newly formed anxiety I had about future employers finding out about this. I have also begun attending Diversity Leadership Transcript Program events with OSU and the office of Diversity to help me realize the importance of diversity for this country to progress.

The anonymous author does not say what his or her comments might have been. But if it’s true that Ohio State is ordering students who make allegedly “insensitive” comments to undergo regular “hate speech counseling,” putting holds on their accounts, and threatening expulsion complete with notes on their transcript about their personal opinions, Ohio State is not only unlawfully policing thoughts and expression, but courting a massive and expensive disaster in court.

No matter how much a government official might dislike your expression (and Ohio State administrators are government officials), that dislike does not give them the right to punish you for what you say or believe. After all, the next government official to come along might dislike and punish an entirely different set of beliefs! If government officials ever do legally acquire the power to punish you for your viewpoint, we’ll no longer be able to call the United States a truly free society.

Robert Shibley is the senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).