Suspending Students for Hate Tweets

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Thanks to social media like Twitter and Facebook, students can share with the world what some might regard as hate Tweets or hate posts. For example, Kent State wrestler Sam Wheeler sent out a series of rather unpleasant tweets about Michael Sam (the openly gay college football player). In response, Kent State suspended Mr. Wheeler from the team. There have been other incidents in which students have posted or Tweeted comments that could be deemed racist, sexist and so on and in some cases the schools take action against the students. There is, of course, the question of whether schools should do so.

One obvious approach is to take the view that students agree to a code of conduct. So, if the student code of conduct specifies certain behavior as being grounds for suspension or other action, then the action would thus be warranted on this gorund. In the case of student athletes, there are also the rules that govern the sport. When I was a college athlete, I had to follow the NCAA guidelines and could be legitimately punished for breaking them. As such, the suspension of an athlete who breaks the rules would be warranted on this ground.

Of course, there is still the question of whether there should be such rules. After all, rules that forbid a student from expressing views would seem to be a violation of the student’s free expression and thus would be, on the face of it, morally unacceptable.

My own view is, not surprisingly, that students do not lose their right to free expression by being students or student athletes. However, freedom of expression is neither absolute nor a free pass to say anything.

Obviously enough, things like actual threats of violence are not covered by the right to free expression and students can be justly held accountable for such things. However, merely saying things that are regarded as hateful (racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.) would not justify a school taking action against a student. This is because while people have a right to not be threatened, they do not have a right to not be offended or insulted by the speech of another person. So, if a student goes on a homophobic rant on Twitter and does not cross over into such things as threats of violence, then she is acting within her rights and the school has no right to silence or punish her. The school also has no right to create rules that forbid the expression of ideas and views, however offensive those views might be. To do so would, of course, make a mockery of the very idea of the academic freedom that is supposed to be a foundation stone for the university.

A student can, however, be in a position in which she can be legitimately called to task for such speech. If the student is acting in the capacity of a spokesperson for the university, then she can be held accountable in that capacity because she is not acting as a private individual but as a representative of the school. The same can apply to athletes as well—athletes are taken to represent their school and, as such, occupy a position that would plausibly make them spokespeople for the school. As such, they can be held accountable in that capacity. So, for example, a cross-country team captain who insists on making hateful, vulgar and poorly written Tweets about Christians can be legitimately censured—as a member of the team he is in the role of representing his school. If he wishes to remain on the team, he will need to cease that behavior. He can, of course, elect to leave the team—if he regards being able to tweet hateful and vulgar things about Jesus as being more important to him than being on the team.

There is a rather serious concern about the extent to which a student can be regarded as representing the school and also the important matter of sorting out what sort of speech would warrant action being taken against the student. Unfortunately, I cannot cover these matters in this short essay, but in general, I would favor a moral policy of tolerance and erring heavily on the side of free expression.


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  1. Couple of point:

    A school has something of a duty of care for its students, and would find it difficult to distinguish between a student making remarks about someone not at the school, that had no effect on students at the school, and making such remarks that could be seen as also applying to fellow students. So, making hateful comments about the homosexuality of a football player could be construed as hateful remarks about homosexuality generally, and therefore being hateful towards fellow students. The school might have grounds for providing a respectful environment for all students, and suspending someone who clearly is not respectful in that sense.

    Also, the school isn’t directly preventing free expression. Wheeler would be free to continue with his free expression, just not as a student of that school (whether suspended or kicked out). Perhaps Wheeler could attend some evangelical funded school where his hate speech against homosexuality might fit right in.

    This latter isn’t a clear cut matter though. The freedom of expression of employees can be effectively curtailed by a fear of the consequences of insulting a boss most employees do not like. There are cultures and religions which will not tolerate free expression that criticises them at all, never mind using hate speech (and criticism is often interpreted as hateful and offensive speech specifically to squash dissent). So, it could be argued that suspending Wheeler is a means of repressing Wheelers free expression of his dislike for homosexuality.

  2. Homophobia tends to be more than just saying something negative about a social group, for instance, saying something negative about Christians or about dentists.

    Homophobia is low, it’s cowardly, it’s sleezy.

    There’s a lot of evidence that homophobia occurs in males who are afraid of or ambivalent about their own homosexual urges.
    While there’s nothing morally wrong about being ambivalent about one’s sexual urges, channeling that ambivalence or fear into outright hostility towards those who act out their sexual impulses is, as I said, low and while maybe it should not be censured, it should not only be condemned, but ridiculed, especially when it comes from athletes such as wrestlers (as in this case) who make a big show about how manly and courageous they are.

  3. I would agree with the author’s point about erring on the side of tolerance. If a student isn’t advocating violence, then a situation like this can be a good start to a discussion which can help to educate.

    Ron Murphy’s suggestion about moving schools seems to be too extreme, since he is calling for a harsh punishment. You are preventing expression if you required to leave your college. Transferring is a big deal, and would act as a threat to students to keep quiet. The free speech movement of the 60’s would have been crushed if Berkeley required all students to transfer if they wanted to protest.

    S wallerstein, uses an argument that no philosopher should use. Instead of opening up discussion, he tries to silence disagreement by using the weak argument that anyone disagreeing with homosexuality is likely homosexual. An argument that is inaccurate and also uses homophobia to try and silence those questioning homosexuality.

  4. CK:

    Google “are homophobes gay?” for evidence that homophobes are often latent homosexuals.

    I would say that virulent homophobes tend to be latent homosexuals. How else can you explain the verbal (and at times physical) violence they show towards a sexual minority, who bother no one, if not by a reaction against their own fears of being gay, if not by a infantile attempt to prove their own “virility” by bullying those who remind them of their own sexual urges?

    Now there may be philosophical arguments, which I might label “homophobic”, for example, arguments against gay marriage, which can be considered philosophically in some sense, but there is absolutely no philosophical argument in favor of bullying gay people (or anyone else) in twitter.

    Bullying a young gay person in twitter, one who has recently revealed his sexuality in an unfavorable and often hostile situation, that of American football, is, as I said above, low, sleazy and cowardly.

  5. CK,

    Have I misunderstood you in thinking you misunderstood me? To clarify, I wasn’t suggesting that as a recommendation but was rather expressing in a subjunctive mood that the school might do; but then in my third paragraph went on to say why such a move would be problematic in that it can be seen to be a means of repressing free expression.

  6. s. wallerstein,

    A sex based species must have some biological promoters that tend towards a preference for the opposite sex, and some inhibitors that tend towards a distaste for the same sex. A distribution that is predominantly exclusively homosexual is detrimental to the continuation of a sexual species, but being bisexual isn’t, as long as sufficient heterosexual procreation occurs. Strong exclusive heterosexuality, even with a specific and strong distaste for homosexuality, is not at all deleterious to reproduction in a sexual species.

    So, we should expect a distribution where the majority of individuals are predominantly heterosexual, with a biological reproductive tolerance of bisexuality. Such a distribution will, by natural biological diversity, result in a homosexual minority; and in a minority, perhaps a large minority, that are homophobic (I stress: in a biologically driven sense).

    In this context we should expect biological homophobia, just as much as if not more than homosexuality. It is quite natural for some people to find heterosexual acts repulsive.

    However, none of the above excuses social intolerance of homosexuality to the point of persecution, bullying, discrimination: social homophobic hateful behaviour. The progress we have made as a species is to learn to tolerate difference. That not only means tolerating the fact that some people are homosexual, but also that some are biologically homophobic. Our biologically driven differences are not differences of a moral kind.

    In the above context I think your “if not by a reaction against their own fears of being gay, if not by a infantile attempt to prove their own “virility” ” applies only in specific cases. Typically it will be those cases where there is a strong socially homophobic climate: many religious cultures, and many male sub-cultures (that may or may not have religious influences).

    However, I don’t think it’s the general case that all homophobes are closet homosexuals. I think there must be many who are genuinely biologically heterosexual and biologically homophobic.

    Again I stress I’m not excusing social homophobic behaviour. I think we need to live and let live. And in doing I don’t think we need to demonise and make up generalisations that do not apply. There must be some heterosexuals that read your explanation for their biological homophobia and simply see it is not true – and it won’t do to assure them they are really homosexual but they just don’t know it.

    1) In a strong heterosexual anti-homosexual culture it will be noteworthy when one of those professing heterosexuality and strong homophobia suddenly is revealed to be homosexual or bi-sexual. This causes a strong bias in reporting. It’s far less notable when someone tolerant of homosexuality reveals they are homosexual or bi-sexual.

    2) What did the study reveal about those that were homophobic but who gave no indication they were homosexual – i.e. the study marked them as heterosexual?

    3) From the abstract: “Given the stigmatization of homosexuality, individuals perceiving low autonomy support from parents may be especially motivated to conceal same-sex sexual attraction, leading to defensive processes such as reaction formation.” ( It seems that there was a specific class of individuals they were interested in. I don’t think this makes a general case.

    So, I think it likely to be the case that most claiming to be heterosexuals and homophobic are really heterosexual.

  7. Ron Murphy:

    I agree with much that you say, and as you point out, I probably exaggerated the percentage of homophobic males who are latent homosexuals in my previous comment.

    However, we live in an extremely homophobic culture. First of all, there is the influence of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Then at least in my experience the upbringing of a boy is largely dedicated to “making a man” of him, to assuring that he sees homosexuality, especially being penetrated, as a fate worse than death. If a tenth of the time in my upbringing that was spent “making a man” of me, inculcating a horror of anything “faggy” in me had been spent developing my creativity, I might not be J.M. Coetzee or Mario Vargas Llosa , but I’d probably be a more gifted writer.

    We know that in cultures such as that of ancient Greece where male homosexuality was not seen as sinful (within a certain set of complex rules about male and female roles), bisexuality was common.

    That fact about the Greeks and adult conversations with other males leads me to believe that while some people may be exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual, many are at least partially bisexual, if not always in terms of their conduct, at least in terms of attractions, urges and dream-life.

    Now, the problem arises when partially bisexual or latently homosexual males are raised in and endorse a heavily homophobic culture. Instead of accepting themselves, as sanity dictates, these men, I believe, develop an especially virulent form of homophobia.

    My evidence linking virulent homophobia with partial or total bisexuality or latent homosexuality is anecdotal (I admit), but besides famous cases of homophobic preachers which have appeared in the media, I have known several virulent homophobes, the kind that disrupt normal sociality with their diatribes against gay people, who given favorable circumstances, revealed themselves as gay males.

    In a homophobic culture, latent gays or latent bisexuals, who cannot accept their sexuality, channel their fear of being gay into hostility towards those who are openly gay. Every encounter with a gay person reminds the latent gay or latent bisexual homophobe of his repressed impulses or of that embarassing gay dream he had last night and instead of facing himself, the homophobe tries to suppress his own homosexuality or bisexuality by suppressing the other.

    Not all homophobes are virulent, but how can one explain the violence and virulence of some homophobes if not by the hypothesis of fear of their own homosexual/bisexual tendencies?

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