How to respond to expressions of hate on campus

Universities must be responsive to threats, hateful intimidation, overt racism, and other forms of discrimination. In developing responses, administrators need to distinguish between speech that is offensive but protected by the First Amendment and hate crimes or harassment, which are punishable criminal acts. Even short of hate crimes or harassment, manifestly malicious and intimidating speech can impair equal access to the full benefits of a college education and the ability of all students to participate in campus discourse. In responding, administrators should emphasize expressions of outrage, empathy with those targeted, and creative educational approaches.

See PEN America Principles


    Amass as much information as possible about the origins of the hateful messages. Determine whether the speech in question represents an imminent threat of violence or potential hate crime, and coordinate with law enforcement as appropriate.


    When emotions run high, the community might not be receptive to hearing you, but you should nonetheless listen to them. Be active, present, and visible. An immediate public response, even if only to say that the administration is aware, concerned, and investigating, is important.


    Reach out to all relevant stakeholders (affected students, student groups, faculty, the diversity office) and confer with them to arrive at a response that reflects their input and the full range of duties of the university.


    Consider a range of responses. Some cases may demand a strenuous, public condemnation, while others may raise concerns that amplifying a hateful act will bring it outsize attention. In determining a response, keep in mind that even if some individuals take offense, that is not sufficient grounds to limit the offensive speech.


    When communicating about instances of hateful speech, starting with a defense of free speech can be alienating for those who feel hurt. It is better to first characterize the hateful speech as morally offensive and only then, and as appropriate, make clear that it is nonetheless a protected form of speech.


    In messages sent out to the campus community or shared on public platforms, assert core values, such as inclusion, tolerance, and mutual respect.


    Engage in specific outreach to targeted communities and express support for and solidarity with them. Provide them with information about campus counseling services and other resources.


    Depending on the type of incident, consider whether any disciplinary measures are appropriate, in line with campus policies. For hate crimes, harassment, and any other conduct that violates the law, an aggressive disciplinary response is warranted.


    Create spaces for community reflection and healing. Consider organizing opportunities for community members to speak out against hate. Any formal responses will spark conversation; be as transparent as possible and continue engaging with the community.


    Establish mechanisms to review and evaluate the effectiveness of the university’s response.

Further Reading

External Resource