“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” – Frederick Douglass
“One of the problems with defending free speech is you often have to defend people that you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting.” – Salman Rushdie
“You would argue with a fence post!”, my mother used to say. She was right … I loved nothing more than a good debate. While other kids were whining, pouting or throwing a temper tantrum, I was on my feet, logically arguing, making my points which just seemed to pop into my head unbidden. I often wore my parents or teachers down and when they couldn’t come up with a better argument, I got the cookie, extra hour until bedtime or whatever prize I was arguing for. Not much has changed … I still like a good argument, even if it is with my own self. I was recently telling a friend that I argue with myself, and that sometimes three of me get in on the argument: me, myself and I. I have even been known to smack myself in the head from time to time. Just last evening I was having quite a debate with myself (me was not feeling well and sat this one out) about Ohio State University and Richard Spencer.
The backstory in a nutshell …
“Officials at Ohio State University won’t allow noted white nationalist Richard Spencer to rent space on campus, citing safety concerns after several of his supporters opened fire on counter-protesters at the University of Florida.
In a letter from an attorney representing Ohio State sent on Friday, the lawyer noted the university was concerned that hosting Spencer would pose a “substantial risk to public safety, as well as material and substantial disruption to the work and discipline of the University.”
Now, the University of Florida is left with a $600,000 bill for the increased security — one that will ultimately trickle down to taxpayers — required for Spencer’s appearance on campus. Hundreds of police officers, as well as SWAT teams and snipers, mobilized at the school to help keep the peace.
Georgia State University student Cameron Padgett, currently organizing a speaking tour for Spencer on college campuses across the country, has already announced his intention to sue Ohio State for denying his request.
Padgett also sued Penn State University on Friday for making a similar decision earlier this year. Shortly after the violence in Charlottesville, Penn State’s president decided that Spencer was “not welcome on our campus” because his events posed “a major security risk to students, faculty, staff and visitors to campus.
The University of Cincinnati, on the other hand, was also under threat of legal action from Padgett’s lawyer but decided it will allow Spencer to proceed with booking event space on its campus.” – ThinkProgress, 21 October 2017
And then …
“An associate of white nationalist Richard Spencer is suing Ohio State University after university officials refused to rent space for Spencer to speak on campus.” – The Hill, 22 October 2017
And now begins the debate. On the one hand, as a humanitarian, a supporter of human and civil rights, I do not want to see Spencer in any public venue. First, his message is one of hate, it is one of white supremacy, arrogance and intolerance. Second, whither goeth Richard Spencer, violence is sure to follow. Violence that will likely leave people injured, perhaps some dead, and property damaged. Third, the cost of providing security falls, ultimately, on the taxpayer and frankly I think we have better things to spend our money on. That is the one hand that speaks from mainly the right side of my brain, the side that is more intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective.
Then there is the other hand, the hand that spent nearly two years studying Constitutional Law, the hand that keeps a pocket copy of the United States Constitution by its bedside and another by its computer. The hand that is attached to the voice that speaks loudly for the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, including freedom of speech. This hand says that it is not up to the government or its institutions to restrain or curtail any free speech. The aforementioned schools are public institutions, and therefore government entities, thus they fall under the 1st Amendment without question. This hand speaks from the left side of my brain, the side that is more logical, analytical, and objective.
Is there a middle ground, a compromise? Surely safety concerns and cost to taxpayers for the benefit of a very few are legitimate concerns? But let’s be honest … the reality is that most college administrations do not want Richard Spencer and his ilk anywhere near their campuses because of his message. It is the message that offends and insults. If the Pope wished to visit Ohio State University, the cost of security would be equally high, if not higher, yet the University would welcome Pope Francis with open arms.
Then we must also consider this: I have always believed and supported the idea that a university is a marketplace of ideas, and as a marketplace of ideas, students should be exposed to all different viewpoints, even on subjects that might offend them or even with viewpoints they might find offensive or disagreeable. And isn’t it the case that what one person may find offensive, another person will not? In the 1971 Supreme Court case Cohen v California, the court ruled in essence that one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric. How do we define what is offensive? What is disagreeable? Some people are going to love what he says and others won’t, and is not the government’s job to be in the business of drawing that line?
But, given what happened in Florida last week, is it not reasonable to say that his message is incitement to violence? The Supreme Court has made it clear that speech that is directed to inciting or producing imminent, lawless action and is likely to result in violence, can be censored before the violence actually happens. But all of those conditions must be satisfied. It must be provable that his intent is for his followers to commit violence against others. Does he do this? I suspect he walks a fine line, but typically stays within the law.
I end where I began, with one hand wanting him barred from speaking in any public venue, but with the other hand knowing that by law, by our Constitution, he has as much right to a public voice as do I. And now, dear friends, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.