A Formal Defense of Free Speech

This article does not necessarily reflect the views of The Clerk as an institution. Please join The Clerk on April 19th at 7:30pm in the DC Basement as we host Journalists and alumni from FIRE, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and administration officials for a panel on journalism, free speech and the Honor Code. 

There has been much debate recently about to what extent the Haverford community is allowed to enforce communal ethics versus the protections granted to individuals by the right to free speech. I write now to address two points brought up by this discussion. First: that our ability to enforce our community views is predicated on the freedom of speech within our community, and thus free speech is not to be understood as an individual right, but as a necessity of a democratic society. Second: I have noticed a general disagreement about what counts as speech in the context of this debate, and would like to propose a test for what constitutes speech.

In order to understand what I mean by my first point we need to address a very important question: What gives a person or a community the right to enforce the conclusions of their ethical views? The answer to this is strikingly simple: Because they are right, or at least think that they are. After all, if you believe that murder is wrong, then it is only right that you should stop someone from committing murder.

But individuals and society don’t always hold correct ethical views. There was a time when slavery was viewed as morally correct, after all. This means that simply holding an ethical view is insufficient to be able to say that it is correct with any degree of certainty.

So in order to enforce our ethical views, we need to have a way to be certain that the views we enforce are more like the view that murder is wrong than the view that slavery is right. In other words, we need a truth-determining process. In democratic communities, especially here at Haverford, this process takes the form of public discourse, such Canada’s article and the responses it has caused (this piece included).

But, in order for public discourse to properly act as a truth-determining process, certain requirements must be met. I am concerned right now with only one of those requirements: (Almost) any statement must be presentable within that discourse. This is a requirement because, unless a statement can be presented, its effect on public views cannot be known, nor can its validity.

A statement cannot even be allowed once and then banned afterwards under the assumption that its validity remains the same. After all, that assumption rests on the beliefs that (a) our initial truth-determination was accurate, and (b) nothing has changed about the validity of the claim since it was last allowed. But we have no way of knowing that these beliefs are true, and thus that we can trust our truth-determining process, unless we either allow the initial statement (thus unbanning it) or take them to be true in order to prove them, making the argument circular.

As long as we allow free speech, we can say that these statements are wrong. I am certain, for example, that the statement “racism is right” is terrible and wrong. But I can only hold that certainty as long as I have a valid truth-determining process, and in order to do that, I have to allow that statement to be asserted, no matter how reprehensible it is. If I ban it, I cannot be certain that I am right to do so, and thus lose the ability to ban it. Thus free speech must prevail.

This is not to say that any reaction to these claims is unacceptable. If someone told me that they thought racism was acceptable, that would color my opinion of them in a very negative manner. However, when I lower my opinion of an individual, I don’t do so with the intent of punishing them or otherwise trying to prevent them from making these statements. Any attempt I would make to convince them would be founded in reason, rather than in coercion or force.

Now that we have established the importance of the freedom of speech from an epistemological perspective, it is important to determine with greater precision what is meant by speech. One might say (as some of the respondents to Canada’s piece have) that, for example, blackface or slurs don’t carry meaning, and are thus not protected under this argument. However, a number of actions which do not carry traditional meaning seem like they should be protected speech. Speech is more than just semantically valid statements. We recognize both the flying and burning of a flag as forms of speech, for example, yet no one could call the flying of a flag “true” or “false” in the same way someone could say that the statement “human rights are universal” is true.

To help ameliorate this confusion, I would like to propose a test for what should be considered speech. The purpose of speech is to transfer a concept of some sort from one person or group of people to some other person or group. Thus if speech lacks a recipient it is ineffectual. This means that if an action would have no effect if no one was aware of it, then that action serves only to convey information, and is therefore a form of speech. If I call you a jerk and everyone ignores me, nothing happens. Thus calling you a jerk is a form of speech. If I shoot you and everyone ignores it, you die, and so shooting someone is not a form of speech and can (and should) be banned.

Similarly, if someone says “racism is ok,” and everyone ignores them, their statement has no effect, same with someone burning a flag or writing to the Clerk. Thus these all exhibit speech-like qualities, and can be considered speech. Note that it is not important whether or not the speech is actually ignored. All that is required is that, if it was ignored, it would have no impact, as this is a test to determine what counts as speech, rather than whether the action has an impact or not.

Finally, I would like to address one of the few cases where speech can be prohibited: Untrue statements of fact (whether lies or claims actually believed by the speaker). Untrue statements of fact can be prohibited because there is a more fundamental truth-determining process that can be applied to analyze the statements. In the case of the statement “global warming is a hoax,” the process is the scientific method, which I believe is more fundamental than public discourse, since if the two processes disagree, I’d stand with the scientific method. Similarly, yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre (when there is no fire) is making an implicit claim that “there is a fire in the vicinity, and as such we should probably leave now,” which is scientifically (or rather, empirically) false, and thus can be prohibited. This form of speech is not the only one that can be prohibited; however, an exhaustive list would be beyond the scope of this letter. I include this example to show how arguments against certain forms of speech can be constructed within this framework.

Now, that is not to say that scientifically inaccurate statements can be dismissed at all levels: They must be presentable in scientific circumstances. Where they will of course be disproven or similarly dismissed. This is no different than what should happen to political or philosophical claims such as “racism is ok” that are offered at the political level: They should be suggestible, even if they are easily dismissible.

In summary, freedom of speech does not arise from a right of individuals, but as a necessity of the process by which communities like ours determine what is true and false, and thus become capable of enforcing the conclusions of those views. Therefore, arguing that free speech should be curtailed to protect the wellbeing of other community members, even though the honor code may require it, is missing the fundamental importance that freedom of speech holds for communities like Haverford.

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38 Responses

  1. Charles Walker says:

    I (the author of this article) welcome the discussion that I hope will ensue around this piece, and will try my best to respond to comments posted here.

    EDIT: I feel that this discussion has for the most part run its course. I’ve said my piece and (although I will still be approving new comments if they are posted) will not continue to respond. If you want to talk with me in person or over email, feel free to reach out to me.

  2. anonymous says:

    No one’s gonna read this, they’ll see the headline and run to the comments to have a tantrum.

  3. Trevor Larner says:

    While I appreciate your attempts to bring an academic spin to the issue of free speech, I feel like this piece misses the point overall.

    I believe that, as a community, we have created a groundwork for what kinds of speech are tolerated and are not tolerated. As a community, we have decided- in the Honor Code- that forms of hate speech are not tolerated in this community. The “truth-determining” process that we have created for hate speech is years of discrimination against marginalized communities. We know that racism is wrong for a fact- there are plenty of testimonies from people in marginalized communities where they attest to the effects of hate speech. We do not need that speech in our community to determine that.

    I am not sure why the line is drawn at scientific vs ethical facts- scientific facts have changed through time as well. The idea that we can have a conversation about blackface but not about global warming seems completely arbitrary- ethically, we know that blackface is wrong, and this is based on moral and ethical axioms, similar to the axioms that govern the sciences.

    While I appreciate you writing this piece, and do think that this is an important topic, I believe that you take Haverford as a very isolated community- while ignoring centuries of history that preceded your time here.

    • Charles Walker says:

      I believe that we cannot be justified in preventing speech, even going over your reasons. You mention the creation of this groundwork in the honor code, I for one do not think that groundwork can be constructed and then not be revisited, nor that that groundwork can be justified in preventing free speech. I agree the groundwork is there, I just think it shouldn’t be. For one, we have plenary, where we are empowered to alter and even reject the honor code each year, so to say that because the honor code says something, it must be so in our community doesn’t really hold.
      Furthermore: Discrimination in the past isn’t truth-determining. Discrimination isn’t truth-determination (being discriminatory doesn’t allow me to know anything), and even if it was, I address in the article that past conclusions require free speech to be verified.
      You say we know something (the wrongness of racism) to be a fact, yet you immediately point to a form of speech as your evidence for its factuality. This reenforces my point: the speech of those individuals affects how you determine fact. To allow some people or ideas freedom and not others would thus damage your ability to know anything.
      Scientific facts, or rather, our knowledge of them, have indeed changed, but the measurement of scientific facts is very different from that of ethical facts, and I do point out that scientific fact must be debatable in the proper context too, I just suggest that the proper context is different from that of ethical facts.
      The only difference then is where/what the appropriate context is. I agree, however, that that point is the most arguable within the piece.
      I don’t think this argument rests on being an isolated community. It applies to communities of arbitrary size, as long as they are essentially democratic.

  4. Chelsea says:

    So do you believe that laws against sexual harassment violate freedom of speech?

    • Charles Walker says:

      It is an unfortunate truth that, depending on the form of harassment, this may be so under this argument. Understand, I do not advocate for this: I point out in the argument, and would restate it here again, that I disagree with a lot of the speech that this article defends, I just don’t think a society can be epistemologically justified in prohibiting it. This specific example merits more thought, as I do not believe it is acceptable, but the argument above does indeed seem to suggest it cannot be prohibited.

  5. Zach Werrell says:

    This guy gets it. I’m glad to see thinking isn’t yet dead at Haverford.

    You beat bad ideas by exposing them. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, shoving unpopular ideas under the bed doesn’t accomplish anything except protecting feelings.


  6. Anonymous Ford says:

    I was wondering when the clerk was going to release another white guy think-piece about how racist hate-speech should be protected.

    • Charles Walker says:

      It shouldn’t matter who I am: Ideas are true or false by their own merits, not the merits of their speakers. If you have a rebuttal to the content of this piece, rather than the by-line, I’d love to hear it.
      The assertion that only certain people can think about certain topics and present arguments for certain views, especially based off of their skin color, is absurd.

      • Anonymous Ford says:

        It matters who you are when the premise of your argument rests upon the fact that you’re a white dude who will never be threatened by racist hate-speech (your whiteness IS the reason you’re able to draw such a big distinction between speech and violence, make no mistake). You’re really not being as ~objective~ as you think you are.

        • Charles Walker says:

          Never do I assert a premise which relies on my race. These same words spoken by someone else would have no change in validity. In fact, no where within my work do I make reference to my own ethnicity. Can you point out a line within my essay which would be more or less true were someone else to say it? (without using a pedantic example like “I’ve noticed” to say “there is”).
          I hate to pull this card, but you seem to assume I grew up in America. I didn’t. I can assure you that race relations where I grew up look very different from the US (Egypt and Indonesia, if you’re curious). Would not the person most divorced from a situation be the most (likely to be) “objective”?

          • Anonymous Ford says:

            Here’s a doozy:

            “If someone told me that they thought racism was acceptable, that would color my opinion of them in a very negative manner. However, when I lower my opinion of an individual, I don’t do so with the intent of punishing them or otherwise trying to prevent them from making these statements. Any attempt I would make to convince them would be founded in reason, rather than in coercion or force.”

            It’s super noble of you to be so Logical and Reasonable about why you form opinions about people, but notice that you didn’t mention that you’d have to be on edge or fear for your safety when you’re around that person, or that their statement would remind you of the overwhelming constant systematic violence against people like you. As I said (and you didn’t really address) before, being white allows you to see speech as some harmless realm fundamentally divorced from “real” violence.

        • Charles Walker says:

          It appears one can only respond four comments deep (i.e. comment depth goes to 5), so I’ll leave my response here and hope you get it.

          Firstly, others, including non-caucasians could still make that claim without lying, and it would be even more accurate in that case: They certainly wouldn’t be lowering their position of that person for punitive reasons, which was the point of that paragraph: an explanation of the fact that not all reactions were prohibited, which I should think you agree with. In other words, the central claim of “lowering your opinion is not punishment, but a natural result of the expression of the idea” would be even more true for your proposed individual. And yes, I do pride myself on being as rational/reasonable as I can be. Reason and complex thinking are what has allowed technology and civilization as we experience it today to exist at all!

          Violence as you are using it, or at least as the meaning which you want to use the connotations of, refers to the use of physical force to hurt/kill someone or damage their property. I don’t know about you, but (as a non-wizard) I can’t conjure physical force with words.

          What I am saying is that speech is not violence. They are two separate classes of thing. Indeed, they are nearly opposite things. Speech transfers information (a process which does not destroy the original copy of the information, and is thus a net gain of information) while violence is the destruction of information (an abstract way of understanding violence is increasing the local entropy of individuals: Destroying the complex pattern of chemistry and physics which allows them to think/exist). These are slightly different meanings of information, yes, but the difference disappears when information is constrained to refer to human useful/readable information.

          • Anonymous Ford says:

            You’re right my dude, who are we to combat speech that actively pushes people of color to the margins of our community and maintains Haverford’s status as a racist institution?

        • Another Anonymous Ford says:


          It seems to me like you are assuming only white people can support free speech using these values.

          Well then, talk to me, a POC. I agree with everything the author has to say. Now kindly use something other than the race card to disagree with the author’s comments.

        • Almost Done w/ haverford says:

          interestingly, this comment (in conjunction with those below) assumes that Charles is Het/Cis. While I am attempting to placing any gender identity or sexual orientation on Charles, these attributes (which would be unknowable to you Anonymous Ford) could easily open one to hate-speech vulnerability despite having white privilege. There are potentially other venues for hate speech as well (religion, body type, neuro-status, etc.)

  7. Anonymous Ford says:

    I think this article contains a few very key ideas, but unfortunately veers away from the point by continuing to conflate the idea of an honor code that acts as an agreed upon social standard with the necessity for free speech under the law. Just because frank discourse and open exchange of original ideas are necessary for the fruitful discussions that advance us as a community and a society does not mean that every bit of speech that we can concoct falls in the category of such an idea. Discussion about the moral standing of racism (the example used in the article) has been recapitulated for decades and there is surely near unanimous agreement within our community on the matter. Meanwhile, to broach such a sensitive subject in such a way, in a climate where the community considers the matter resolutely settled, would be moving the goalposts in a way that would be inherently threatening to people of color in our community. To entertain such a discussion is to say that it is still up for discussion. Yes, it is often true that bad ideas should be exposed and put in their place rather than suppressed, but it is impossible to cultivate a community where people feel accepted if we are willing to entertain expressions of direct denigration of certain demographics within that community.

    Hence we have a community standard that prohibits certain types of discriminatory expression, which was formed by weighing the importance of the implications that certain expressions have on acceptance in our community against the importance of maintaining the extreme corner cases of free expression. Given that I have not heard of cases going to honor council or yielding punishments in circumstances other than these most extreme cases (such as the muppets trial), I do not think that our community standard is actually the problem. After all, the concept of confrontation is supposed to promote dialogue in sorting out issues where someone’s free expression bothers someone else.

    HOWEVER, it is undeniable that we have issues with social tolerance for unpopular speech on this campus, as evidenced by the number of people who feel stifled and uneasy about sharing their views on issues where they may not share the popular opinion. To maintain a community standard like the one we have runs the risk of becoming a slippery slope where we begin to want to shut down ideas that we dislike or find offensive, even when they are nuanced views of complex subjects where our own belief systems cannot possibly be impenetrable. The trend of labeling many of these relatively unpopular ideas as “violence” is a dangerous example of this slope, as it strangles discussion just by the looming possibility for one’s ideas to be labeled and hence ostracized in that way (while distracting from all the actual violence that still exists in the world, I might add).

    We really do need to take a step back and acknowledge this slippery slope if we want to call ourselves a community that prides itself on both its standards and its commitment to discourse. After all, we can only know what our standards are if we have the discussion and believe that as long as we stay within some basic and reasonably well-defined bounds, the expression of our ideas will be tolerated and not ostracized.

    • Charles Walker says:

      I feel that as colleges attempt to act as a microcosm of society, they really aren’t all that different. The trouble with the distinction between what ideas are fruitful and which are not is the matter of who decides which ideas are which, and how such a process can be conducted. Any such process, if it relies on community consensus seems like it would require the broaching of the topic and the analysis of its merit. Which, to me, sounds a lot like allowing the concept to be expressed.
      Perhaps you and I operate under different definitions of “moving the goal posts,” but I don’t think there was an initial criterion which I changed to a new one during this argument? I am of the opinion that everything should be up for discussion. Question everything, as they say. For truth will in the process of being questioned, reveal its truthfulness, and the truthfulness of other things, while falsehood will be unmasked. As a practical matter, we cannot question everything due to time constraints, but we shouldn’t label anything off limits to questioning.
      You once again fall into what I would consider a trap of arguing against free speech as if it was a moral question, not an epistemological imperative. I think that, as in order to enforce our ethical views, we need to know if they are correct, it seems impossible to prohibit free speech, even to protect individuals, since freedom of speech and and individual wellbeing aren’t on the same plane, but one (free speech) is wholly prior to the other.
      I think this is one of those “all or nothing” things where we need to protect the corner cases, since without free expression the entire system of truth-determination collapses, but overall I agree with the last half of your comment, especially regarding violence and the slippery slope.

      • Anonymous Ford says:

        Well yes, I think the topic was broached when the specifying line regarding discrimination was added to the social code a few years ago. That is exactly my point: the discussion has been had, we’ve agreed to a community standard, and we’ve decided that this particular corner case has been settled and that it would do more harm than good to keep allowing the “discussion” to be had (it’s worth noting that racism usually does not manifest as a precursor to discussion such as the hypothetical line in your article).

        I simply don’t see unlimited free speech as an epistemological imperative. I don’t believe in objective morality, so I don’t think it’s possible to discover “correctness” in ethical views; rather, our affirmation comes through societal acceptance, and altruistic ethics are an effective survival trait for a species. I believe discourse is important because the expression of ideas and listening to those ideas allows us to expand our minds and learn more about each other and the world, which ultimately makes it a better place. Thus if we have a community standard that forbids something we collectively believe makes the world worse, then I find that completely reasonable as long as the corner cases that it prohibits are well-defined enough to combat the slippery slope concerns I expressed above.

        The moving the goalposts phrase was not directed at you, but rather at the hypothetical situation where we entertain the argument for “racism is good.” My point was that such a situation changes the entire frame of reference by allowing for a debate on a topic that we have collectively agreed that there is no more debate. It would be similar to allowing an earnest, serious discussion of whether you should beat up a fellow student. We’ve already established over a long period of time that physical violence is wrong, and this student surely would not feel accepted or safe in an environment where this discussion was being legitimately entertained. Both criteria are the same for this racism hypothetical.

        • Charles Walker says:

          I don’t think the discussion can be had and then further argument dismissed (I address this point specifically in my article) because of the epistemological catch-22 of trying to prove that the discussion’s conclusion is still correct.

          Whether or not morality is objective is an interesting question, and I think I reach different conclusions than you do. I am personally a utilitarian and believe any rational human must be compelled to be a utilitarian as well. This is not to say that utilitarianism is right universally as some sort of physical/metaphysical law, just that as long as I have a personal utility which I maximize, I must also maximize that of others or otherwise act irrationally (and as a rational being, I am compelled to act rationally).
          I also know that there are many conflicting ideas and theories about the best way to maximize utility, and that some of these are most certainly right or wrong. Morality is universal both in the sense that, as a utilitarian, I am compelled to enforce my moral conclusions upon others, because this is one way I can maximize utility (as I say in the article: I am right to prevent you from killing someone because I think killing is wrong and thus not to would be hypocritical), and that within my framework, different actions are more or less moral and this difference is discernible through experiment and theory. To hold a moral view without concern for its truth is to forsake your right to enforce it, as you cannot justify your moral view’s validity over that of someone who disagrees.

          In other words, if a society enforces a moral code, it must believe it to be right to do so, and thus must believe that code applies to those who do not want to follow it, which sounds a lot like an objective morality to me. So society must operate under the supposition of an objective moral code in order to prevent free speech (as such an action is enforcing a moral view, and thus requires the above belief as to its ability to be applied and thus objectivity) and once it makes such a supposition, my argument can be raised in free speech’s defense.

          The issue is also with this collective belief that free speech would make the world worse. I claim such a belief requires a way of determining this belief to be accurate or inaccurate, and that this method requires (you guessed it) free speech.

          While I agree we should never turn to violence, I feel like I have recently engaged in that very conversation (the violence one, though admittedly more abstractly than about a specific student and I was, of course, on the con: violence side). Note, too, that my point wasn’t that we should all sit down and start drawing up “pro/con: Being a racist.” I specifically suggest summary dismissal in my article. What I say we cannot do is prevent someone from suggesting it. As I said earlier, I don’t think anything is beyond questioning. I can question things which I am certain about. For example, I know that following the law is morally correct even when breaking it would have no moral impact other than breaking a law. In asking myself why this is so I reach interesting conclusions about ethics which are entirely irrelevant to this conversation (and, more germane to my point, if I never questioned this, although I could obey the law myself, I could never justly tell anyone else to obey it).

  8. Naw says:

    How many philosophy classes have you taken my guy cause you sound like every freshman who’s taken intro to ethics

    • Another Anonymous Ford says:

      I’m confused. Is this comment saying that it thinks the author is flawed because they are using argument structures in an ethical debate… that literally everyone who ever took an ethics course would use?

      Hm. Lets take that line of thinking and apply it to a different course, eh?

      “Look at that scientific method. How many Chemistry classes have you taken my guy cause you sound like every freshman who’s taken Intro to Chem.”

      So… using logic? An understanding of the material? And this is in opposition to… someone with NO understanding of ethics?

  9. yet another anon says:

    I think what troubles me here is that your definition of permissible speech seems to include direct threats of violence, which I believe should not be permitted (and in fact, aren’t even protected under freedom of speech by states’ laws). For example, if A tells B that they are going to harm B unless B does what A wants, it’s entirely possible that it’s an empty threat, but B doesn’t know unless they ignore A. If A follows up on their threat, by your definition, it’s not the threat that’s a problem but the act of violence itself. I think B needs to be able to go to others and tell them A has been threatening them, and have A’s behavior stopped and punished, but under your definition, A is simply exercising free speech, and should not be stopped except by debate. Do you think this is a problem, and if so, how would you treat threats of violence in your argument?

    • Another Anonymous Ford says:

      The author uses quite a bit more nuance, and in fact states that certain speech should be limited, giving at least two examples of implicitly untrue things before noting that those examples aren’t an exhaustive list. I’m sure that no sane individual, even one arguing for free speech would say direct threats can be ignored.

    • Charles Walker says:

      Sorry for my delayed reply. I’ve had a lot to do these last couple days and wanted to give your question the full consideration it was due.
      I don’t think direct threats should be allowed under this structure, though I understand your concern that they appear to be.
      I think there are two crucial points. First, B (using your A/B example) acting defensively and warning others (including by contacting the police) is actually directly addressed: Acting defensive is addressed as a natural, non-punitive response to B’s behavior, while warning/telling others falls under the classification of free speech itself, somewhat amusingly.
      Secondly, we can perform a more detailed analysis of a direct threat to see why it’s not allowed. Consider the example threat “I will kill you unless you do X.” This is, legally and philosophically speaking, a statement of intent. (“I will kill you”–future action, “unless you do x”–triggering condition. The sentence is fully descriptive of the speaker’s plan) Thus when we punish people for making a threat, we actually don’t care about the threat, we care about the intent it expresses. (Intent to commit a crime both should be and is illegal)
      Now, this seems to weaken my argument significantly, since similar arguments could approach any claim, right (Isn’t “racism is ok” a statement of intent)? Well, no, actually! Because beliefs are not intents. I can believe a lot of things I can’t act on (believing the sky is blue doesn’t and can’t lead me to action): and even beliefs that suggest that people should take certain actions are often not acted on. Consider, by means of counter-example, myself. I believe in an ethical system which would suggest that eating meat is morally wrong, and so I shouldn’t do it. I am not a vegetarian (just a bit of a hypocrite). Similarly slurs, paintings, flag-burnings, and any form of speech without full semantic meaning don’t carry intent. If someone says “I’m going to kill Steve,” now we have a statement of intent. This difference, by the way, is already recognized legally essentially as I have outlined it. “Steve should be killed” is an interesting example somewhere between the two (intent and non-intent), and may need to be judged on a case-by-case basis (though I expect it to be more intent than not).
      Furthermore, the intent model for threats allows for a more nuanced take on this style of speech. Since what is punished is intent to commit a crime and the speech is merely evidence, this explains why a threat by someone who, say, purchased a gun recently and knows where you live, should be punished/responded to more than a random internet death threat. They’re both evidence for intent, but depending on circumstance and other evidence, the likelihood that the intent exists changes.
      Now, there remains one more problem to address. What if when B says that they will kill A unless A gives them their wallet, there was no actual intent to do so, and this fact is easy to prove upon investigation (say the gun someone was using to commit a robbery was fake)? Then there is not intent, so is there still a crime?
      I would merely suggest that, should the robbery succeed with the fake weapon, the robber is still guilty of theft, which resolves one prong, leaving only the possibilities that either the deceit is uncovered before the threat comes to fruition or the threatened party ignores the threat and nothing transpires as a result. In the robbery example, the robbers still had intent to commit a crime: that of robbery, even if not armed, so they can still be charged. But what about a more pedestrian threat, such as someone issuing the threat “Unless you quit your job I will kill you?” If the threatener has no intent to kill the threatened party, it is hard to see this threat as a statement of any other criminal intent. This is a particular corner case that I do not at the moment see a resolution to, and shall think further upon. But this specific example makes up such a small percentage of direct threats that, though I fully admit my inability to resolve this question is a problem, I don’t see the problem this produces as significant. (The flaw only exists in regards to threats which are believable yet demonstrably false with investigation which do not compel individuals to act in such a way as to be interpretable as the intent of committing another crime. Pretty specific, but admittedly troubling.)

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  11. Goin to the country, gonna eat me lotsa freeze peaches says:

    Hey Charles, if someone says some racist shit in class, do you at very least think it’s ok for everyone else to loudly call them out for being a racist piece of shit and socially ostracize them?

    • Charles Walker says:

      Calling out: Absolutely! The disagreement with abhorrent views is, in my opinion, one of the most important things that free speech allows! I’d go beyond calling it merely ‘ok,’ I’d say it was a positively good thing!
      Socially ostracizing someone is more complicated, but I would say yes it is ok, because ostracization doesn’t seem punitive as much as it is a natural response to such events, associated with the reduced opinion of someone as a result of their statements. (Distinguish this from punching someone, which is obviously punitive. Not spending time with someone is perfectly reasonable. You’re under no obligation to fraternize with people you don’t like.)

      • Goin to the country, gonna eat me lotsa freeze peaches says:

        Ok, so if a person being edged out of a community for holding racist views is okay in your eyes, why is it suddenly worse when the Honor Code is upfront and honest about our intentions to do just that?

        Like, do you have a problem with everyone in the community agreeing “racism is not welcome here” and taking the logical steps to ensure that?

        • Charles Walker says:

          This is where, as I said, ostracizing gets more complicated. Being pushed out of a community, especially through coordinated action, moves from a non-punitive to punitive action. Finding the distinction between the acceptable form of distancing oneself and unacceptable punitive response can often be complicated, I admit, but I would propose the following ideas to help evaluate:
          Are you actively trying to affect the behavior of others? Either by
          1a: Pressuring the individual in question to change their mind by making explicit the choice between holding/speaking their views and continued social engagement as a tool to alter their behavior?
          1b: Encouraging others to respond similarly to you (in regards to ostracizing the individual).
          In both 1a and 1b the behavior is one I would deem unacceptable as the response ceases to be simply one’s natural reaction and now has punitive nature to it. Now, 1b (and arguably 1a) does actually (ironically) fall under the domain of free speech itself, but I can still say it’s wrong (and that you shouldn’t do it), while defending your right to do it.
          I would point to an analogy between this and blacklisting. There seems to be an obvious divide between saying “we don’t want to work with you again” and possibly explaining why to other companies when relevant pressuring other companies to avoid hiring someone, which is almost always done for punitive reasons (often to suppress political views or worker’s rights).

          Having something like that written into a physical document (such as the honor code) seems, by analogy to blacklisting, to be highly indicative of a punitive, rather than natural, response. Furthermore, when a community acts in intentional concert to exclude members, it is hard to see that as anything other than censorship, even if that action, if conducted on the individual level, could be justified.

          Finally, I think classifying a possible social trial as simply “edging someone out of a community” is being a bit intellectually disingenuous on your part. Checking the most recent social trial abstract (skipping joint social/academic trials and skipping Hamilton due to its relation to a prior case) we find the Guardians of the Galaxy abstract listing (justified) resolutions including: Preventing access to a specific building (the confronting party’s dorm), Removal from a sports team, and mandating attendance to certain events (plenary). Going a little further back to Frank Lloyd Wright, we see a justified use of (what is euphemistically named) “separation from the community” which effectively suspends the student in question. All of the listed resolutions seem a bit more than just “edging someone out of a community” and more like “applying extrinsic consequences to certain behavior with the intent of dissuading individuals from engaging with it” which, to me, sounds like a very longwinded way of saying “punitive measures.”

          • Goin to the country, gonna eat me lotsa freeze peaches says:

            I guess I just don’t see the problem with what you call “punitive measures” when they’re applied to students who directly cause lots of others to feel unsafe and unable to participate in our community. Like, you can’t deny that hate speech seriously affects people on this campus, often to the extent that it prevents them from being able to take part in class/social events/etc (well, you could deny this, but you’d either be blatantly ignoring marginalized people’s voices or blaming them for their own pain). So if someone’s going to be systematically punished/excluded from the community–and make no mistake, racism at haverford is systematic–shouldn’t it be the people who show blatant disrespect for marginalized folks rather than marginalized folks themselves?

          • Charles Walker says:

            You make a number of assertions here that I disagree with. To start with, you seem to think that the reactions of people to statements is relevant here. I hate to break it to you, but there is no right to not be offended, nor should there be.
            Furthermore you suggest that Haverford is not just racist but systematically so. If this is true, I missed the memo. If you can prove that, you, or a PoC friend of yours, has quite a significant legal case. I’ll accept that claim to be true when you file that suit (hell, you don’t even need to win the suit, just prove there is enough evidence for one).
            Let us also notice here a false equivalency you are trying to draw: You say that “shouldn’t it be the people who show blatant disrespect for marginalized folks [who are to be punished] rather than marginalized folks themselves?” I have yet to meet a single person who has taken someone to social trial for the crime of being black. Perhaps I missed that abstract. Since you are suggesting that we punish one group instead of another, I think you should first present evidence that the first group is being punished in a similar fashion to what you are suggesting.
            Indeed, I have heard no evidence that any Haverford student has physically harmed another due to ethnicity in the recent past. So when you suggest that people feel unsafe, you better show that that fear is statistically grounded. Because otherwise you’re no better than a politician who convinces his constituents that there is a crime wave when there is none and uses this as an excuse to crack down on non-violent offenders. Indeed, you’d be almost exactly that. I do want to reduce the number of people on campus that are afraid, but if their fear has no statistical basis, the cure is not attacking their perceived enemies but improving their information access to demonstrate the safety of their situation.

          • Goin to the country, gonna eat me lotsa freeze peaches says:

            I could go into much further detail, but honestly it’s probably not worth it, so I’ll just say this: I absolutely agree that “there is no right to not be offended, nor should there be.” So when I say that your most recent comment (especially the last couple of sentences—I mean *wow*) reeks of racism and invalidating/erasing the voices and experiences of PoC on campus, I do so with full knowledge that being called racist will probably offend you.

            It’s natural to be uncomfortable when you’re called out like that, but it’s up to you to learn from it (and not immediately try to “disprove” it). Instead of typing up another five paragraphs to defend your logical, rational self, I highly suggest you be quiet for once, accept that you really don’t have the full story here, and make an honest effort to educate yourself.

            Maybe this would be a good place to start:

          • Charles Walker says:

            Honestly, it doesn’t offend me that much. I’ve come to expect such labels to be applied, if not to me, then at least to people who voice similar opinions. This is one of those issues with the overuse of a word. It loses impact. (I feel like there is a fascinating theorem here about linguistic information density based off of combinatorics)

            Of course such slander does have some impact on me: I’d be quite strange a person if it didn’t, but it’s more a shift of focus/feeling of concern, a question of how I need to alter my rhetorical style now that I am operating under this false accusation. I imagine you can identify what the change would be. Perhaps my lack of significant response comes from an important lesson I’ve learned: I cannot change everything in the world. What you call me is no more in my control than the wind or the tides. What I can control is how I respond, internally and externally.

            I read the assigned reading. The reading contained no evidence of physical danger to individuals on campus due to their skin color, and thus fails to justify a feeling of fear or an inability to express oneself or act. In fact, the existence of the work (which I applaud, once again, as an exercise of free expression) seems to show me that there are avenues of expression available. There was a lot of sad things there, don’t get me wrong, but nothing which I consider a violation of rights greater than an individual’s right to free expression.

            I think our disagreement comes from the fact that I consider emotions to be in a similar class of object to other reactions: They can be justified and unjustified. Generally speaking (emphasis on generally, I haven’t fully detailed to myself or others the nitty-gritty of this idea), justification exists if the potential changes in the world are more than psychic, for example, to be sad when something dies is justified since a death fundamentally lessens the cosmos, while to be sad that someone called you mean things is generally unjustified, because those mean things don’t change the world outside of your mind. There is of course a lot more nuance here: If someone you thought liked you called you something mean to attack you, your view of your relationship with them would change, thus your internal conception of reality would change in a manner which would justify sadness.

            Saying “X makes me sad” isn’t a trump card against X under this view, since there are two routes of alleviating this sadness. Stopping X or stopping the causal tie between X and sadness. In the case where the emotional reaction is justified, I would go to stop X, while in the case of an unjustified emotional reaction, I would move to dissolve the causal tie between X and sadness. I practice this philosophy personally as well, in case you would accuse me of being a hypocrite. I don’t always succeed, of course, but I seek to as much as possible. For example, as above, when you accused me of being a racist, I was not (significantly) offended, for reasons I laid out above.

            Also, what do you have against five paragraph replies, and a focus on being logical/rational? Is five paragraphs too long or short for you? (I would like to note that if I include your assigned reading, your reply was a lot longer than mine) Would you prefer a different format for this information? Perhaps a wall of text? A more hierarchical/numbered structure like my suggestions v. tests for punitive nature?

            As for being logical/rational, I find it the most useful method of determining truth. I can’t emote to a proof of mathematics or physics, nor of philosophy, nor can I determine the best strategy for dealing with a problem through emotions, but I can use reason for these things. Emotion has its place, and a very important one at that: Evaluating the quality of personal outcomes. It is impossible to use logic for this, except in calculating expected emotional response. Similarly, logic has its own role: Thinking, planning, arguing, and generally understanding the world and the course of actions to move it between states is best done through logic. To use one in place of the other would be like trying to use a hammer as a screwdriver, or a screwdriver as a hammer. You might be able to do it to some extent, but you wouldn’t get very far, or produce a high-quality result.

          • Goin to the country, gonna eat me lotsa freeze peaches says:

            Lmao you really did it. I’d be laughing if I wasn’t so angry that I have classmates who think haverford should be a safe space for racists.

          • Charles Walker says:

            Did what?

  12. rhys davis says:


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