Thanks to social media like Twitter and Facebook, students can share with the world what some might regard as hate Tweets or hate posts. For example, Kent State wrestler Sam Wheeler sent out a series of rather unpleasant tweets about Michael Sam (the openly gay college football player). In response, Kent State suspended Mr. Wheeler from the team. There have been other incidents in which students have posted or Tweeted comments that could be deemed racist, sexist and so on and in some cases the schools take action against the students. There is, of course, the question of whether schools should do so.
One obvious approach is to take the view that students agree to a code of conduct. So, if the student code of conduct specifies certain behavior as being grounds for suspension or other action, then the action would thus be warranted on this gorund. In the case of student athletes, there are also the rules that govern the sport. When I was a college athlete, I had to follow the NCAA guidelines and could be legitimately punished for breaking them. As such, the suspension of an athlete who breaks the rules would be warranted on this ground.
Of course, there is still the question of whether there should be such rules. After all, rules that forbid a student from expressing views would seem to be a violation of the student’s free expression and thus would be, on the face of it, morally unacceptable.
My own view is, not surprisingly, that students do not lose their right to free expression by being students or student athletes. However, freedom of expression is neither absolute nor a free pass to say anything.
Obviously enough, things like actual threats of violence are not covered by the right to free expression and students can be justly held accountable for such things. However, merely saying things that are regarded as hateful (racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.) would not justify a school taking action against a student. This is because while people have a right to not be threatened, they do not have a right to not be offended or insulted by the speech of another person. So, if a student goes on a homophobic rant on Twitter and does not cross over into such things as threats of violence, then she is acting within her rights and the school has no right to silence or punish her. The school also has no right to create rules that forbid the expression of ideas and views, however offensive those views might be. To do so would, of course, make a mockery of the very idea of the academic freedom that is supposed to be a foundation stone for the university.
A student can, however, be in a position in which she can be legitimately called to task for such speech. If the student is acting in the capacity of a spokesperson for the university, then she can be held accountable in that capacity because she is not acting as a private individual but as a representative of the school. The same can apply to athletes as well—athletes are taken to represent their school and, as such, occupy a position that would plausibly make them spokespeople for the school. As such, they can be held accountable in that capacity. So, for example, a cross-country team captain who insists on making hateful, vulgar and poorly written Tweets about Christians can be legitimately censured—as a member of the team he is in the role of representing his school. If he wishes to remain on the team, he will need to cease that behavior. He can, of course, elect to leave the team—if he regards being able to tweet hateful and vulgar things about Jesus as being more important to him than being on the team.
There is a rather serious concern about the extent to which a student can be regarded as representing the school and also the important matter of sorting out what sort of speech would warrant action being taken against the student. Unfortunately, I cannot cover these matters in this short essay, but in general, I would favor a moral policy of tolerance and erring heavily on the side of free expression.