Approximately one hundred people attended a panel discussion titled “Hate Speech on Campus: A Conversation,” held at at Towson University on Wednesday Oct. 2.
Sponsored by Towson University Hillel, The Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC), Towson University Hebrew Institute and The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, the panel featured U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.); Dr. Sanaullah Kirmani, faculty advisor to the Muslim Student Association; and Dr. Cynthia Cooper, Acting Associate Dean, College of Fine Arts and Communications. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Joel Bolling, senior director of the Center for Student Diversity and a board member of Towson University Hillel.
It was Cardin who reached out to express his desire to have a dialogue with the students on the issue. Lisa Bodziner, executive director of Baltimore Hebrew Institute (BHI), shared in her opening remarks. BHI holds a special place for Senator Cardin as his wife, Bodziner added, Myrna Cardin (who was in the audience) is an alumna.
Each panelist provided their perspective on what constitutes hate speech, followed by questions from the audience.
“Hate speech demands an expressed hostility or disdain towards the Other,” said Dr. Kirmani. “To remain silent in the face of open hate is to side with that expression.” Kirmani authored the article “The Holocaust, Reflections of a Muslim” in a 1997 edition of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies.
Dr. Cooper shared that she began working with hate groups twenty-five years ago while at the University of Tennessee.
Dr. Cooper mentioned that she will be teaching a course on “the anatomy of hate” for the first time next semester, which will include strategies for “when hate comes to campus.”
“You are stronger than you think,” Dr. Cooper added, mentioning the impressive response by the Towson University student body when a hate group came to campus this past spring. Calling themselves, “The Bible Believers,” the group targeted the LGBTQ community, Jews, Muslims and women.
At the time, Towson University president Kim Schatzel issued a statement which was published in The Baltimore Sun: “While Towson University recognizes this group’s right to free speech under the constitution and its legal right to occupy designated public use space on our campus, their messages are at odds with our relentless effort toward a more diverse and inclusive campus that supports every TU community member to thrive, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation or levels of ableness…I am proud of our students’ and our community’s positive response…the demonstrators’ unsuccessful attempt to challenge our institutional values as a welcoming, diverse and inclusive campus was met with a community that proudly displayed our support for each other and our priority for safety.”
“The fact that Towson University is having this conversation, and that every seat is taken, speaks volumes about the priorities here,” said Cardin. He added that he sees many similarities with the hatred that the Nazis brought. “Muslims were killed in Christchurch [New Zealand]; Jews were killed in Pittsburgh; blacks were killed in Charleston, and Latinos were killed in Texas … We have given oxygen to those who espouse hate, and we cannot let someone who espouses hate to go unchallenged. We need an action agenda to deal with these issues.”
Cardin emphasized that critical to the work of addressing hate is forming coalitions, pointing out that, “None of us are safe if any of us are unsafe.”
Unlike in other democratic countries, he said, the First Amendment provides ample protection to free speech to the inclusion of hate speech. But, he said, “Hate is an effort to give oxygen to people who believe that anyone who is different from them does not deserve the same opportunities.”
“There is nothing wrong with being for your country, but if you believe that your country welcomes only certain people, that’s dangerous. You don’t want to restrict who can speak, but you don’t want to let that go unchallenge,” he said.
“You have to say no, and you have to say no loudly. You don’t let it go without a strategy to counter it, and you develop an action plan.”
Dr. Cooper highlighted the difference and correlation between speech, conduct and the incitement to violence.
“If you don’t understand what’s happening, watch videos of people who have left hate groups,” she encouraged. She pointed to Don Black, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and founder of the white nationalist website Stormfront, who credits the internet with growing his base.
“Stormfront is the largest hate group website in America,” Dr. Cooper said. “The internet is the hatemongers biggest tool. All they have to do is build a good website, or Facebook page. They no longer have to reveal themselves by recruiting in the supermarket.”
Speaking to the effects that hate and hate speech can have, Dr. Kirmani said, “Pay attention to the emotional injury that hate speech, hate acts and looks – threatening behaviors — can have. The emotional injury is sometimes worse than the physical.”
“Walk towards conversation,” Dr. Cooper urged, “instead of away from it. And never tell someone their opinion is wrong.”
“If you are a rabbi and a church or a mosque is bombed, speak out. Leadership needs to speak out,” said Cardin. “Don’t let it go unchallenged, and build coalitions, build interfaith groups.” Cardin urged attendees to reach out, and to hold more diversity events in order for people to better understand other communities. “Don’t ever give up your principles. Be involved. Be passionate. Listen to others. Engage. Build coalitions – we cannot let those who espouse hate divide us.”
Asked why it was important to cosponsor the evening’s discussion on hate, Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, remarked, “We are seeing increasing numbers of hate incidents across communities, and the more we talk about it and confront it, and show our leaders that we are engaged, the more we will encourage people to stand up and fight it.”
“I am here tonight because hate speech on campus is an important and timely topic,” Jeremy Sanders, Program Manager in the University’s International Student and Scholar Office and Towson Hillel board member. “The panelists presented interesting perspectives, from philosophy to mass communications — and I particularly appreciate hearing from a U.S. senator. I think that as we hear and watch the news, it’s important to be aware of ways we can and must address hate speech.”
Jake M. Goodman, a senior majoring in political science, member of Hillel and a senator with the Student Government Association, said, “We had a hate group on campus last spring and as a university we are trying to figure out how to foster a more welcoming and inclusive environment on campus. We want people to work together and to be happy on this campus and I believe that we need more panels like these; not just for the Jewish community, but for other groups as well, particularly at a time when we have a hectic political system.”
“Having these conversations is a priority for us,” Lisa Bodziner told the JT after the panel discussion. “Hillel looks forward to working with the Jewish and Muslim interfaith group, as well as other initiatives that encourage coalition building.”