By Kyle Mannisi, Opinions Editor
College campuses have become a focal point for a heated debate about the limits of freedom of speech. The First Amendment states that “the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable,” according to the majority opinion issued by Supreme Court Justice John Brennan. This was established with the landmark “Texas v. Johnson” case of 1989 after Greg Johnson, a protester, burned an American flag and was charged with ‘desecration of a venerated object.’ The Supreme Court ruled against Texas, deciding that stopping Johnson’s protest was an infringement of his freedom of expression.
The ‘offensive and disagreeable ideas’ of Richard Spencer have been brought to college campuses under the same aforementioned precedent, although there is a clear and obvious difference between the two cases. The path of violence that is inherently and consistently created is the most objectionable feature of Spencer’s movement. They incite intimidation, disruption, and chaos while bastardizing the conversation around individual liberty and “freedom of speech,” which only prioritizes their own “right to offend.”
Johnson’s protest had the goal of exercising freedom to criticize the government, while Spencer’s movement is not just “simply offensive,” it’s dangerous. Richard Spencer exploits the First Amendment in his attempt to rebrand hate speech as free speech. The ethically-backwards branch of science (actually closer to eugenics) that Richard Spencer adheres to has absolutely zero academic merit, and should not be allowed anywhere near any self-respecting academic institution. Ohio State University, alongside dozens of other universities recently denied rental space and permits to Spencer’s event, citing public safety concerns.
It is concerning that colleges cannot always legally withhold a speaking platform from Spencer and people of his ilk. Auburn tried to restrict Spencer’s ability to speak on campus but he was allowed to speak after a legal battle. Spencer used this opportunity to “suggest white people had lost their identities and black students on campus sexually abused white women.”
The goal of post-secondary education is to give students of all walks of life a healthy learning environment in an academic setting. Allowing Neo-Nazis to march openly on the University of Florida’s campus, like they did on October 19, gravely threatens the safety and wellbeing of students. Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in the leadup to the speaking event. Many professors cancelled class in fear of placing their students in danger by asking them to come to class on the day of the rally. Total cost of security for the event amounted to over $600,000, all of which comes at the expense of taxpayers.
Three men that attended the Florida rally have been arrested on charges of attempted homicide. They drove their vehicle past a group of counter protesters with anti-Nazi signs, shouted Neo-Nazi slogans and then fired a handgun near the group. Two of the three men reportedly have connections to extremist white nationalist groups, and all three spoke with media in support of Spencer at the campus event prior to the attack.
The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, which drew hundreds of alt-right supporters and even more counter-protesters, was the scene for one such domestic terrorist attack. 32 year-old paralegal and member of the IWW, Heather Heyer, was murdered when James Fields Jr. plowed his car into a large group of protesters. Fields Jr. was seen in photographs marching alongside members of Vanguard America prior to the attack, a group that has been described by the Anti-Defamation League as a “white supremacist group that opposes multiculturalism and believes that America is an exclusively white nation.”
The often-ignored reality is that white nationalist domestic terrorism is on the rise, despite Trump’s claims. Reuters has reported that the White House announced plans to revamp and rename a government program, formerly designed to counter all violent ideologies, so that it focuses solely on Islamist extremism. Neo-Nazis took this as a sign that Trump was on their side and encouraging them to continue their hateful scourge. Trump’s team completely ignored a report entitled “White Supremacist Extremism Poses Persistent Threat of Lethal Violence,” which was prepared by the FBI and Homeland Security. One instance of violence outlined in the FBI/DHS report was the case of an eighteen-year-old Chinese student that was attacked by a white supremacist with a hatchet in Nashville, Indiana. “Donald Trump wants to remove us from undue federal scrutiny by removing ‘white supremacists’ from the definition of ‘extremism,’” proclaims the editor of “The Daily Stormer,” a publication that gets its name from a Nazi propaganda newspaper.
Free speech does have certain limitations, such famous examples involve yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, causing unnecessary chaos. The chaos and fear caused by these antagonizers should never have to be tolerated in any society, like we should never have to put up with someone yelling ‘fire’ in a theatre. Universities must understand that allowing these people to openly spread their ignorant beliefs on college campuses has a direct impact on the safety of students. No student should be subjected to the danger that comes with hundreds of rabid racists descending upon their campus.
It seems that universities will have to step up and protect students from the threat of domestic terrorism coming to their campus, as it is becoming abundantly clear that the government will not step in. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a speech at a Georgetown University event warned that “freedom of speech is under attack on college campuses…” and that colleges were turning into “a shelter for fragile egos.”
Jeff Sessions was denied federal judgeship in 1986, as Senators from both sides of the aisle decided that he was too racist for federal Alabama courtrooms. Sessions reportedly referred to a white attorney that represented black clients as a “race traitor,” and has said that the worst thing about the KKK was its members that smoke marijuana. It’s no wonder he thinks that institutions like the NAACP and the ACLU are “un-American,” what else would you expect from the man that once referred to a black attorney as “boy”.
Hearing Mr. Sessions lament the persecution that he and other racists face helps me realize the severe degree of his willful ignorance on the subject. They feel attacked when they can’t attack others, like some kind of schoolyard bully. It should definitely make you wonder; who really has the “fragile ego” here?