- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2017

In an open letter Tuesday to the campus community at the University of Maryland, President Wallace Loh defended “unfettered expression” as essential to academic freedom and political liberty, but suggested that a university task force could look at legitimate ways to discipline “fighting words” which aren’t protected by the First Amendment.

The remarks came in the midst of an internet posting headlined “Reflection, Dialogue, and Action,” in which Mr. Loh spelled out some ways he hoped the College Park institution might “stand for ​our values” and work to “build together a more ​diverse, ​inclusive, respectful, and just ​University of Maryland ​for all.”

“One of the most vexing issues ​for the Joint Task Force to ​consider is whether and how to draw the line between free speech and hate speech on campus,” Mr. Loh said. ​”The First Amendment protects speech we abhor in order to ​safeguard speech we ​cherish​. Unfettered expression is essential to academic freedom and a democratic society.

​”Yet, ‘fighting words’ are not constitutionally protected,” he said. “Can we better identify for our community the threshold where despicable views go too far? When do words create a hostile environment? When does the injury they inflict become intolerable? What are ways of supporting members of our community whose identity and ​dignity ​are ​demeaned​,​ and their ​role in society marginalized by hateful speech​?”

The term “fighting words” appears to refer to an opinion from a 1942 Supreme Court case that held that insulting words that “by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are not necessarily protected under the First Amendment.

Mr. Loh said “[e]xternal expert consultants” would weigh in and that “best practices” from other educational institutions would be considered, as well as input from “public forums” taken. ​

In January, Mr. Loh responded to a laundry list of “demands” by a student group by saying that some of its action items were patently unconstitutional.

“[T]here are ‘demands’ that should not — and will not — be implemented because they are unlawful, or impractical, or unnecessary,” Mr. Loh wrote at the time. “Examples: restrictions on freedom of speech are unconstitutional; providing ‘prayer rooms’ in every major campus building is impractical; declaring UMD a ‘sanctuary campus’ is unnecessary, since we already provide all the protections and support allowed under the law.”

Elsewhere in his letter Tuesday, Mr. Loh reiterated his commitment to advocate for university students who were in the country illegally, while declining the “sanctuary” label some liberal activists have called for.

“The large and dedicated staff ​in the ​Division of Student Affairs​ (DSA)​ ​is ​on the front lines of strengthening a ​campus ​culture of inclusion and respect,” he wrote. 

“They train exempt, non-exempt, and student staff on issues of diversity and inclusion​. They provide a staff coordinator for DACA and Dreamer students. … UMD ​has ​declined to self-designate as a ‘sanctuary campus,’ ​​but ​​continues ​to ​provide undocumented students all the protections allowed by law.​”

• Ken Shepherd can be reached at kshepherd@washingtontimes.com.

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