Education not legislation
Earlier this year, a former prosecutor came to Bowdoin to discuss hate
crimes. He told us heart-wrenching stories of individuals assaulted both
physically and verbally simply because of their race, ethnicity, or gender.
Bowdoin, and most institutions of higher learning, have in place procedures
and protocols that address incidents that involve hateful or insensitive
speech. Here at Bowdoin it is called the Bias Incident Group.
However, one recent incident at Amherst College should make one wonder
whether these enforcement bodies have a bias against protecting the rights
of certain ethnic groups. Perhaps some have read accounts of the flag
burning protests that took place at the end of a "support our troops"
rally at Amherst. Amherst President Tom Gerety wrote that burning the
flag is "an extreme form of expression" but said that such actions
must be tolerated in a free society. I find his response reassuring when
placed in the broader context of hate crimes and speech codes often found
at many institutions of higher learning. However his real test is how
he would react if the protesters burned a cross, a star of david, or any
other religious or ethnic symbol. It should be no different.
Somehow the American Flag, a symbol of the values that thousands of American
men and women have died to protect, is often not treated with the same
respect by courts and University administrators as other religious and
ethnic symbols. The 6,000 people who died on September 11th died because
they were Americans. Therefore, one would think that "Americans"
could be considered a protected ethnic group. If that were the case, then
certainly flag burning would be considered a hate crime, because the flag
is a venerated symbol of our culture.
However, the Supreme Court has rightly ruled that Flag Burning is legal.
I believe one of the fundamental values that the flag protects is the
right of people to make offensive, albeit peaceful, demonstrations, which
includes the desecration of the flag. This protection must include everyone,
even those whose hateful opinions we find rightfully reprehensible. This
fundamental freedom of expression must hold true whether we are in the
Brunswick Town Commons or on the Bowdoin quad.
The fact is that hate crime legislations do not consistently protect all groups who might be offended. Would we really want a speech code that protected every group from being offended? That would hinder all forms of expression. Hate crime laws exist on the premise that one can legislate people's thoughts. This is impossible. Assault and harassment are crimes whether or not it is done out of hate for a group. Changing people's prejudices can only be accomplished through education, not legislation. This is where it is essential that schools focus on teaching what Aristotle called "moral virtues" or what we call "right from wrong." This is where we overcome the roots of prejudice and hate, not in the chambers of a courtroom or the Bias Incident Group.