University Thinks Yik Yak Ban It Can't Possibly Enforce Will Fix Its 'Hate Speech' Problem

from the when-you-eliminate-the-impossible,-whatever-remains-won't-be-this-ban dept

How much stupid can you possibly fit into one policy decision? The range is infinite, but the University of North Carolina is aiming high.

Administrators at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill are now considering a Yik Yak ban, at the request of some students. “People have been saying some very racist, very hurtful things,” Ashley Winkfield, a UNC senior, told

For those of you unaware of Yik Yak’s existence, much less its purpose, Yik Yak is a social media app that allows anonymous postings. This anonymity tends to bring out the worst in some people, and Yik Yak has fielded plenty of criticism along these same lines over the past several months. But it’s far from the only social media platform that allows anonymous postings — which is only part of the stupidity inherent to the school’s plan to ban this particular app.

First off, there’s the issue with “hate speech.” Some speech clearly falls under this heading. Other stuff tends to fall under the “well, I just don’t like what this person is saying” heading. Far too many educational entities tend to frown on both, often with restrictive speech policies. That’s where this is going with a full head of “we’ll decide what’s actually protected speech” steam.

Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Winston Crisp said UNC-Chapel Hill officials are examining options for dealing with Yik Yak.

“I think it adds little to no value to our community and creates more problems for our students than it will ever be worth,” Crisp said in a statement. “We want Carolina to be a place where people feel comfortable talking about race and other issues, and we are working hard to create opportunities for them to do that in a constructive and respectful way.”

UNC doesn’t get to limit speech to only what’s “constructive and respectful.” Its authority doesn’t extend past the First Amendment. But that’s only the Constitutional problems. There are additional problems — ones more firmly grounded in “bright line” areas — that UNC doesn’t seem to have considered… like logistics… or how powerless it actually is.

How could colleges possibly stop students from downloading or using a particular app? They can’t. But they can make the app slightly harder to use on-campus by blocking it from school wireless networks. That this is largely a symbolic guesture hasn’t stopped several schools, including New York’s Utica College and Vermont’s Norwich University, from doing so.

The best UNC can do is possibly inconvenience some of its students. Those who like to fill Yik Yak with hate speech (or just unpopular speech) will move to a platform that isn’t blocked, or just take the (minimal) hit on their mobile data plan. At no point will this ban ever achieve its goal of “constructive and respectful” on-campus speech, in large part because the ban will indicate to students that the university has no respect for their First Amendment rights and believes its attendees are little more than misbehaving children who need to have their toys taken away from time to time. You can’t nudge people towards respect by infantilizing them, no matter how ignorant some of their speech may be (or how loud their complaints are).

Furthermore, the students who wish to see the speech of others restricted are just as naive as the children the school apparently believes they are. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown points out, these students who are shocked by nasty anonymous messages apparently feel the off-campus world is full of constructive, respectful individuals.

I find it hard to believe that before seeing these sentiments expressed on Yik-Yak, Winkfield had no idea that any fellow students might be racists and assholes. But whatever. What’s more mind-boggling is how she thinks banning Yik-Yak would help here.

And how will it help in the future? If you can’t learn to combat ignorance and hate within the relative safety provided by the university, how will you possibly deal with it post-graduation, in a world where speech is much harder to constrain? This student’s colleagues — the ones spewing racist crap via Yik Yak — will move on as well. The ban won’t keep racism and other ugliness bottled up forever. More speech could help deal with this problem, but the pursuit of an app ban is nothing more than sliding a policy rug over a particularly unsightly stain on the carpet. And that only works until the next stain appears. Sooner or later, you run out of rugs.

And, of course, there are alternatives in teaching people how to deal with these things. It’s become something of a cliche at this point that the best way to deal with “bad” speech is “more” speech, but it does seem to be pretty effective in many cases. Even with Yik Yak. Students at Colgate University were dealing with similar problems as those described above, and a bunch of professors decided to do something about it. They didn’t try to ban Yik Yak or shut it down. They started posting positive messages to the service and signed their names to it. It didn’t stop all the abusive comments, of course, but it did change the tone quite a bit, and made students realize that not everyone was a horrible bully on campus.

Our nation’s colleges are, for the most part, cranking out incredibly insular individuals who believe the world can be bent to their whims, thanks to the excessive coddling of every person whose feelings have been rubbed the wrong way by the abrasiveness of real life. It’s not enough that they’ll graduate saddled in debt and possibly armed with a useless degree. They’re also being dumped into a world where everyday nastiness can’t be papered over by tutting administrators and futile bans. Sure, we all would prefer the world be filled with “constructive” speech and “respectful” people, but it doesn’t work like that. By providing shelter rather than pushing students to take control of these situations, these universities are doing their students — and the future of this country — a huge disservice.

Filed Under: , ,
Companies: unc, yik yak

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “University Thinks Yik Yak Ban It Can't Possibly Enforce Will Fix Its 'Hate Speech' Problem”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
GMacGuffin (profile) says:

Let the students decide

I live very close to a University, which Yik Yak caters to, so I check the posts periodically. Platform and users are pretty good about weeding out high-schoolers, et al.

Yes, there are some offensive things said there; yes, perhaps even hate-crimey things said there. But, they get downvoted pretty quickly, and it only takes like 5 downvotes to disappear the post.

Like many platforms, it self-polices pretty well from what I have seen. Granted, this is California, not NC, but students are students, and tend to be from all over. So let the students decide what they think should not be on Yik Yak. They have the power to do so.

Sneeje (profile) says:

Re: Let the students decide

I’m curious by the following, though: “UNC doesn’t get to limit speech to only what’s “constructive and respectful.” Its authority doesn’t extend past the First Amendment.”

Did Tim say this because UNC receives government funding / is a state institution? I guess I’m asking if they are sufficiently established as a government institution to be governed by the 1st amendment.

As we know, the first amendment has no power over interactions between private institutions and individuals. There may be other laws perhaps.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Let the students decide

That downvoting system coupled with positive speech (possibly sponsored by the university itself) will level the conversations up. Idiots will always be there but they’ll be weeded out fast. I like Techdirt example. Eventually the trolls tire out and go away if the discussion is kept high and civilized by most of the people frequenting.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Let the students decide

“First off, there’s the issue with “hate speech.” Some speech clearly falls under this heading.”

“Yes, there are some offensive things said there; yes, perhaps even hate-crimey things said there.”

STOP IT, there is NO SUCH THING as ‘hate speech’ or ‘hate crimes’… NO SUCH FUCKING THING, STFU about it!

there is speech, it can be sublime, it can be crude, it can be appreciative, it can be slanderous, etc, ad infinitum; there is no ‘love speech, there is no ‘hate speech’, there is no ‘indifferent speech’, STOP PLAYING right into the authoritarians hands…

there are crimes, whether hate, love, indifference, or all of the above were IN THE MIND of the perpetrator at the time of the CRIME, is (mostly) irrelevant…

you would think that people who ESPOUSE to be for (more or less) real free speech would leave such childish, MEANINGLESS descriptors behind…

here’s an example:
I love you.

oops, except when i ‘said’ that in my mind, i was actually FEELING really, Really, REALLY ‘hateful’… so, brainiacs, is that ‘I love you.’ hate speech or not ? ? ?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Let the students decide

Actually, I can’t begin to start what’s wrong wrong with this.

For one, hate speech is as simple as you hate something, you speak bad of it. “I hate Kim Jong-un”. That’s hate speech. Now if you went and murdered Kim Jong-un, that’s a hate crime.
This is elementary, my dear.

Sneeje (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Let the students decide

But that actually isn’t the definition of “hate crime” or “hate speech”. Those are speech or crime “[…] motivated by racial, sexual, or other prejudice, typically one involving violence.”

It isn’t elementary, because it is, effectively thoughtcrime from 1984.

The crime itself is provable, it either happened or not. The “hate” portion, is based on a subjective assessment of motivation. I can use words to project my motivation, but they are not necessarily an accurate representation of my mind.

Because they cannot be proof of thoughts, a hate crime must therefore be punishing SPEECH. This is a problem.

My personal opinion is that we should punish ACTIONS, not a subjective assessment of someone’s motivations.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Let the students decide

Hate speech is not a crime in the US. Anyone can spout all the hateful rhetoric they want (as long as it’s not likely to cause immediate violence). The supreme court even ruled that “fighting words” are protected speech.

It is true that in some states, using hate speech in conjunction with certain criminal acts will increase the severity of punishment for those acts, but this is arguably still punishing someone’s actions, not motivations.

I am not saying that even this much legislation about hate speech is a good thing, but so many people don’t understand how this works in the US that too many think that hate speech is prohibited here. It is not.

Sneeje (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Let the students decide

Good points. I probably should have done a little more research before posting. My greater point, which you seem to agree with, is that the flaw in differentiating crimes and hate crimes is what it requires of the law and the judge/jury in terms of assessing the thoughts/motivations of the accused.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Let the students decide

The supreme court even ruled that “fighting words” are protected speech.

I know this is an oldish post but…

‘In 1942, the U.S. Supreme Court established the doctrine by a 9–0 decision in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire. It held that “insulting or ‘fighting words,’ those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are among the “well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech the prevention and punishment of [which] … have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem.”‘

Sneeje (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Let the students decide

The “fighting words” concept and hate speech can be and usually are quite different. From the article you cited:

“…holding that mere offensiveness does not qualify as “fighting words”.

So, the “fighting words” doctrine is more closely related to incitement than it is to hate.

But I know your point is more about whether fighting words are considered acceptable by the Supreme Court. And it is an important case, even though they have narrowed it considerably over time. John probably could have chosen a better example.

It is important though for us to understand as clearly as possible the limits on the first amendment. Thanks for the point, however late 🙂

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Let the students decide

Right, fighting words isn’t really related to hate speech, I think it was pretty much an aside from the esteemed Mr. Fenderson, but it caught my eye. I think there’s common misunderstanding that the right to free speech is absolute in the US, but it isn’t, and I agree the more people know about that the better.

Anonymous Coward says:

There is offcourse the other possibility, that this is an attack on anon posting rather then racism, where those opposed to anon posting are using anonymous hate speech in order to destroy privacy orientated anon posting……..where maybe the majority of anon posters are generally good folks who simply understand to ignore such posts in order to keep the respect of their privacy and others going, in the assumption that if everyone learns to understand it, we might get some meaningfull community change, and the former will die itself out considering the lack of attention……….this is not anything anyone should expect to happen overnight, its something that needs to stop being interrupted………true peace, not forced and therefore perpetual forced peace………..we cant be told what is right, we have to understand what is right in our own time in our own way, and as each generation treats the next generation with better understanding, then the next generation will treat their next generation with understanding……in this we are making it harder then it should be, with the methods being used by groups who dont understand, care, or are purposefully malicious

mcinsand (profile) says:

I can see two sides of this

On one side, the school is being a bit oppressive, but I can also see how UNC might be oppressing to minimize the risk of being oppressed. One of the key defenses against many lawsuits is to have a policy and pattern of ‘diligence’ documented. By going overboard to oppose potentially offensive speech, they might be trying to become less of a target for someone wanting to claim that they are condoning it. I’ve been fortunate to work with some very ethical and restrained attorneys, but there are more than enough ambulance-chasers running around to make any large organization nervous.

mcinsand (profile) says:

Re: Re: I can see two sides of this

>If their thinking is they they want to avoid lawsuits,
>>they will fail whichever way they go.

I agree, especially in the US. There is just no way to make an organization totally secure in a situation like this. If free speech is allowed to go unfettered, someone will be offended sooner or later. That isn’t to say that I endorse hate speech or, especially, threatening speech. There are those out there that are determined to be offended, and we have lawyers ready to take those cases.

I do think that what is happening is that the short-sighted in fear of a lawsuit-by-the-offended are dominating in ths policy, and that would be to lose sight of the larger game. Lately, free speech has been winning, even though the fourth amendment is still under constant attack.

Rudyard Holmbast says:

Re: I can see two sides of this

The First Amendment protects “offensive speech”, “hate speech”, “hurtful speech” “uncivil speech”, or any other name censorious idiots give it. The university can in no way become a “target” if it does not infringe upon the First Amendment rights of its students. In fact, the opposite is true.

I absolutely never cease to be amazed by the geniuses who actually believe there is some sort of ban on “offensive” speech. Crack open a fucking civics book.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

So much I don't understand

Starting with this: if there are people using Yik Yak who are so deeply offended by the speech they see there, why in the world are they continuing to use it? If you just stop using the app, the problem is solved. Instead, they’re demanding that everyone stop using the app. That makes exactly no sense whatsoever.

Second, what business does a university have telling it’s students — who are adults, even — what apps they can and cannot use on their own personal property?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: So much I don't understand

That makes exactly no sense whatsoever.

On the contrary, it makes perfect sense, you just have to be one of those people who assumes that the entire world revolves around you, and that if something or someone annoys and/or inconveniences you, it’s up to the thing/person to change, never you, since you’re already perfect.

Anonymous Coward says:

Stomp that molehill, Tim!

Our nation’s colleges are, for the most part, cranking out incredibly insular individuals who believe the world can be bent to their whims, thanks to the excessive coddling of every person whose feelings have been rubbed the wrong way by the abrasiveness of real life.

Uh-huh. On the other hand, for the most part they’re also educating people so they’ll immediately realize that statements like this are ridiculous.

How about this:

Internet forums are, for the most part, cranking out incredibly insular individuals who believe the world should be run according to their knee-jerk intuitions, thanks to their excessive reading of libertarian sci-fi novels by Robert Heinlein and Jerry Pournelle.

TasMot (profile) says:

Keep your Friends close, keep your Enemies Closer (paraphrased from Machiavelli’s The Prince see at the bottom) would be in order here. Talk is just Talk. However; when the talkers are suddenly forbidden to talk about a topic, they can get themselves worked up into action. Not ever having looked at Yik-Yak, I have never really been offended by it. If someone is really that offended then WHY are they spending so much time reading a website that offends them? Do they also hide in their bedroom and flog themselves. It seems like they are going out of their way to read something that offends them.
Free Speech is one of the cornerstone of the USA. Please, could they either intelligently respond to the anonymous nonsense, or just avoid it.
For all that we know, Winkfield could be posting that nonsense and then pointing it out. After all, it is a totally anonymous site.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If someone is really that offended then WHY are they spending so much time reading a website that offends them? Do they also hide in their bedroom and flog themselves. It seems like they are going out of their way to read something that offends them.

You haven’t seen some of the trolls this site attracts have you? That description is a spot-on match for several of them, always whining about how terrible the site and those that frequent it are, and yet, without fail, showing up time and time again, like they just can’t help themselves.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

This so-called idea of ‘hate-speach’ is not compatible with our 1st amendment to the constitution.
These terms are used to intimidate individuals from expressing their opinions. They want to tell everyone how to think and speak, especially about certain contentious subjects, such as homosexual marriage. When you hear “hate-speech”, this is code for oppressive government mentalities trying to silence you when you speak against things that are morally wrong but that they want to promote. Be very wary of this tactic to silence you and subvert our Constitution and our consciences.

Rudyard Holmbast says:

First off, there’s the issue with ‘hate speech.’ Some speech clearly falls under this heading. Other stuff tends to fall under the ‘well, I just don’t like what this person is saying” heading.'”

Why don’t you enlighten us all as to what the differences are between those two categories of speech. Given that there is a concrete, objective definition of “hate speech”, it should be simple. Oh, wait, no there isn’t. 99 out of 100 times, people start yelling “hate speech” precisely because they have encountered speech that merely “offends” them in some way or other.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

So we see the future.

-Once again the theory I’ve been positing that power causes a form a brain damage is proven. They think they can find a way this time to skirt the very clear laws and not catch hell.

-Those with power will make knee-jerk reactions to “issues” with all of the thought and restraint of a 2 yr old given access to a chocolate cake.

-Raising the children to be special snowflakes who can whine and make the entire world change to cater to their whims is coming home to roost.

ProTip: The world is full of shitty people.

There are people who say things just to get attention. If words on a screen cause you shattering debilitating anguish, you are not engaged in the world and unprepared to do so. If you demand the powers that be silence others that you dislike and gleefully accept them being silenced, you haven’t considered what happens when someone decides your thoughts should be silenced as well. You will find yourself without a voice, wondering why this happened to you, because you were such a nice person.

I'm_Having_None_Of_It says:

…the best way to deal with “bad” speech is “more” speech

If it’s greater than or equal to it, yes. But how do you cope with the fact that all-pervasive speech on any given subject quickly becomes “common sense?”

I’m talking about the number of news articles that, for example, depict atrocities committed by Muslims as “committed by Muslims because of their religious ideology” and thereby equates “Muslims” with commission of atrocities. It doesn’t seem to work the same way for the rest of us, does it? Result: persecution of innocent Muslims, e.g. Chapel Hill.

When white people commit atrocities, they’re usually depicted as lone wolves and not generally associated with a broad homogenous group.

There’s not enough speech to counteract that and it’s happening now.

Solution: more people need to call this stuff out when they see it and yes, that means risking being called all sorts of names for doing so.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...