Discussions regarding free speech have been a hot-button issue on campuses this past year. The United The Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, this past August fueled the free speech debate, which led many to question, "What's the difference between free speech and hate speech?" It should be a question with a clear answer, but not everyone has been able to get it.
On the same day that Cleveland State University was slated to open its first LGBTQ center, anti-LGBTQ fliers appeared around campus. The fliers were reportedly an attempt to harass and intimidate LGBTQ students on campus, as they gave what they claimed to be suicide rates for LGBTQ people, and depicted a slur for gay people written in rainbow letters. The fliers claim to be made by a conservative campus group called Turning Point USA, which has denied responsibility for the fliers. "It drives me crazy that someone would decide to blame us for something like this," Tiffany Roberts, the group's president, told WKYC, a local affiliate news station.
According to CSU’s Director of Communications and Media Relations, the fliers were seen in one building on campus on Thursday morning, October 12. The fliers were removed because they did not conform with CSU’s policies and procedures regarding posting, which require individuals and organizations to have prior permission before posting fliers or posters. In other words, the fliers were not removed because of hate speech that depicted and encouraged suicide — they were removed because whoever posted them didn’t ask permission first. Naturally, this outraged some CSU students, who took to Twitter and Facebook to express themselves.
In a written statement sent to the CSU community, President Berkman assured students, faculty, and staff that Cleveland State’s “foremost priority is maintaining a welcoming environment that provides opportunities for learning, expression and discourse.” The second half of the president’s statement sparked backlash. He said,
CSU also is committed to upholding the First Amendment, even with regard to controversial issues where opinion is divided. We will continue to protect free speech to ensure all voices may be heard and to promote a civil discourse where educational growth is the desired result.
President Berkman released another statement after his first statement drew widespread criticism for not condemning the fliers, and expressed personal outrage over the message of the fliers. The president also said that free speech laws make it "difficult to prevent hateful messages like the ones on the flier from being distributed on campus. In the second statement, President Berkman announced a forum for the CSU community that will allow students to discuss the incident with the administration.
A CSU student tweeted a video from the forum, noting that people were appearing to be turned away from the public forum.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups in the United States rose for a second year in a row in 2016, as the radical right was energized by Trump’s candidacy and election. The most dramatic growth was the near-tripling of anti-Muslim hate groups — from 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016. The Trump administration has shown open animosity towards Muslims through the travel ban. Trump has also been criticized for his quickness to condemn terror attacks committed by Muslims, and slowness to express condolences for Muslim victims in attacks committed by white people.
The anti-LGBTQ fliers appeared on Cleveland State University’s campus the same week Trump addressed the Values Voters Summit, a gathering with the stated purpose of preserving the “bedrock values of traditional marriage, religious liberty, sanctity of life and limited government that make our nation strong.” Summit participants received a pamphlet titled, “The Health Hazards of Homosexuality.” Trump is the first sitting U.S. President to speak at this anti-LGBTQ gathering. The news out of Cleveland state also comes the same week that the New Yorker reported that Trump joked that Vice President Pence wanted to “hang” gay people.
Anti-LGBTQ sentiment has always existed across the world, but what happened at Cleveland State University is an example of homophobic groups being more overt and bold with their hate. The administration's reaction to the fliers is another example of institutions not being able to distinguish between free speech and hate speech; anti-LGBTQ sentiment is never a controversial matter up for debate.