Should hate speech be permitted?

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Should hate speech be permitted? A reflection on truth, morality, and the urgency of Christian courage

December 8, 2023 -

Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, speaks as University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill listens, during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, speaks as University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill listens, during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Harvard President Claudine Gay, left, speaks as University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill listens, during a hearing of the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

“The Universities have been to the nation, as the wooden horse was to the Trojans.” This ominous sentiment was expressed, not in response to the ongoing uproar over antisemitism on college campuses, but by Thomas Hobbes in his 1668 book Behemoth. He was speaking of Oxford and Cambridge, but we might wonder if the philosopher was also a prophet.

The leaders of Harvard, MIT, and Penn recently appeared before Congress to face questions regarding antisemitism at their universities in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 invasion of Israel. In response to their testimony, a US House of Representatives committee opened an investigation yesterday into the universities’ learning environments and disciplinary policies.

What caused such an uproar?

In their opening remarks and throughout the hearing, the three presidents said they were appalled by antisemitism and are taking action against it on their campuses. When asked if they supported the right of Israel to exist, all three answered yes, without equivocation.

However, they refused to state that they would discipline students calling for the genocide of Jews. Instead, the New York Times reports that they “tried to give lawyerly responses to a tricky question involving free speech, which supporters of academic freedom said were legally correct.”

While they subsequently issued clarifications, their evasive answers have been met with incredulity, anger, and calls for the presidents to resign.

“They must all resign in disgrace”

White House spokesman Andrew Bates responded, “It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: Calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country.” Harvard professor Laurence Tribe said of his president’s response, “Claudine Gay’s hesitant, formulaic, and bizarrely evasive answers were deeply troubling to me and many of my colleagues, students, and friends.”

Penn President Elizabeth Magill has been especially criticized for her response to the question of whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” constitutes bullying or harassment. She called it a “context-dependent decision” and stated, “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment.” Josh Shapiro, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, later said he found her responses to be “unacceptable” and “failed leadership.”

Bill Ackman, a Harvard alumnus and billionaire hedge fund manager, wrote on X, “This could be the most extraordinary testimony ever elicited in the Congress.” He said of the three presidents, “They must all resign in disgrace.”

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, who lost several ancestors in Auschwitz, called their responses “one of the most despicable moments in the history of US academia.” And Stone Ridge Asset Management founder and CEO Ross Stevens has withdrawn a gift to Penn worth nearly $100 million, stating that he is “appalled by the University’s stance on antisemitism on campus.”

Where do we draw the line?

Since I have no legal expertise, my purpose today is not to attempt a legal explanation or resolution of questions regarding hate speech. Rather, I am interested as a cultural apologist in a question underlying this controversy: How can a postmodern, “post-truth” culture resolve this question in a manner that is fair to all people and perspectives? To call for the genocide of the Jews or any other people is unquestionably abhorrent.

But where do we draw the line?

If this is a quantity-based determination, what quantity of deaths becomes immoral? If we call for the murder, not of a race but of one or a few of its members, is this equally abhorrent? By this standard, was it abhorrent to call for the death of Osama bin Laden? Would calling for the death of Adolf Hitler have been immoral? What crimes—if any—justify such actions?

What about non-genocidal speech? The United Nations defines “hate speech” as “offensive discourse targeting a group or an individual based on inherent characteristics (such as race, religion, or gender).” Who decides whether such speech has occurred? If the answer is the alleged victim, could anyone claim that any speech they dislike is “hate speech”?

Now let’s ask: What about religious speech? The Qur’an refers to Jews as “apes” and “swine” (5:60;  cf. 7:166). Is this “hate speech”? Should the Qur’an be banned? Should all Muslims be proscribed?

Before you answer, consider this: the Bible calls homosexual activity “shameless” and “debased” (Romans 1:27, 28). If you and I defend biblical sexual morality, won’t LGBTQ individuals and advocates be offended? By the UN’s characterization, is biblical sexual morality “hate speech”?

If you testify publicly that Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life,” and that “no one comes to the Father except through [him]” (John 14:6), will advocates of other religions be offended? If you repeat David’s assertion, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1), will atheists be offended?

In other words, are “hate speech” accusations and even prosecutions in our future as followers of Jesus?

“Leges Sine Moribus Vanae”

I am writing today to make two points.

First, I want to illustrate the intellectual and moral morass that results from denying objective truth and morality. When “your truth” and “my truth” collide and there is no objective basis for determining right from wrong, who wins?

In researching for this article, I discovered the University of Pennsylvania’s official motto: Leges Sine Moribus Vanae, which its website translates as “Laws without morals are useless.” Given the uproar over their president’s congressional testimony, I found the motto a bit ironic. Nonetheless, it makes my point today.

Second, I want to encourage Christians to proclaim biblical truth in a culture that increasingly brands us as dangerous to society.

As Aaron Renn noted, we have moved from the “positive” world in which our beliefs were welcomed and appreciated, to the “neutral” world in which our beliefs were neither favored nor disfavored, to the “negative” world in which our beliefs are now considered a threat to society.

The good news is that we are back where we began.

Early Christians were accused of cannibalism because we “eat” the body and blood of Christ (cf. Matthew 26:26). They were charged with sexual immorality because they were told to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16) and they married their “sister” or “brother” (cf. Mark 3:35). Their refusal to worship the emperor led to charges of atheism.

And yet, despite horrific persecutions that cost many believers their lives, Christianity grew to become the largest spiritual movement in history.

On my first visit to Cuba, I told one of the pastors that I was grieving over the persecutions his people were facing and assured him of my prayers that their oppression would end. He asked me to stop such intercession. Seeing my surprise, he explained that persecution was strengthening and purifying his people. Then he told me that many of them were praying for persecution against Christians in the United States to increase for the same purpose.

If God is answering their prayers, may we be Cuban Christians, to the glory of God.

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