Addressing Hate Speech on Campus and Beyond

hatespeechblogimage2By Dr. Melanie Hetzel-Riggin

This election has left some of us feeling frustrated and sad, or jubilant and relieved. Regardless on which candidate you supported, we must remember that everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect. Despite some of our best intentions, negative thoughts and actions creep into our language and relationships.

Below is helpful information for educators (and everyone!), which offers suggestions on how to respond to hurtful and negative remarks:

  1. Remind students that they are bound by the Penn State Student Code of Conduct. Remind students that as a Penn State student they are bound by the Penn State Student Code of Conduct. Hate speech and any other form of harassment or prejudicial behavior is reportable to the Penn State Office of Student Conduct. Be calm but firm about this reporting requirement. Website to report:
  2. Challenge with questions rather than statements. Strong reprimands often fuel anger and frustration that can often escalate a situation. Ask the person who made the statement to explain what they meant by the statement. Challenge the student to use critical thinking skills, something all of us are trying to teach in our classes. Challenge them to back up their statements using data collected from primary and scholarly sources – make it an opportunity for them to learn.
  3. Share a personal story. Provide a personal example of how hate speech has harmed yourself or your loved ones. When you put a human face what these statements can do to others, often this will increase empathy on the part of the listener. If possible, elicit a story from the person that made the statement about a time they were treated poorly or discriminated against, and ask them how that made them feel. Increased empathy = decreased hate speech.
  4. Be consistent and also focus on the in-between times. We all have policies in our classrooms about speech and respect. Continue that lesson to other places on campus where we overhear and listen to students speak. We are perceived as authority figures, and if we are proactive and firm in our approach to addressing hate speech whenever and wherever we hear it, this changes the social norms about when and where hate speech is acceptable.
  5. Reach out to the victim of the hate speech. Be an active bystander and ask how the victim of the hate speech is doing, what you can do to help, and remind them that they are appreciated and valued.
  6. Get help. Whether from other faculty, staff, students, or in more serious cases, campus police, if you feel like you need help ask for it. On the flip side, if you see someone who needs help, step in and help.


Moving forward. As we move forward, we can start to change the conversation regarding hate speech and its utility. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Include a statement in your syllabus specifically addressing your policies about hate speech.
  2. Create readings and assignments that require students to use critical thinking skills when providing answers to questions. Challenge them to use reputable sources for their information and teach them how to do it.
  3. Infuse diversity into all curriculum. Whether that is explicit discussion of diversity and multiculturalism or highlighting more diverse experts in your particular field, when students see diversity as similar to them, empathy increases.
  4. Make it a social norm that hate speech is not tolerated. This includes any student groups you lead, research, class time, and everywhere in between.
  5. Use each other as resources. We need to be able to count on one another and the administration to back up student code of conduct reports regarding hate speech, as well as our other faculty and staff. If you hear a student complaining because another faculty reported them or called them out for hate speech, back up your colleague.


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