Historically and contemporarily, universities have been the center of social change and political discourse. Consequently, the nature of free speech on university campuses is a deeply important issue. Recently, Richard Spencer, a white supremacist and an "alt-right" leader, has asked to speak at the University of Michigan. His request prompts a much-needed discussion on free speech and how the University will respond to it. The Michigan Daily Editorial Board believes that the University should fight Richard Spencer’s request to speak on campus through the courts for the purposes of campus safety.
By allowing Richard Spencer to speak on campus, the Editorial Board believes the University would offer a platform for Spencer to spread legitimate hate speech. Spencer advocates for the establishment of a “white ‘ethno-state,’” “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and has adopted Nazi terminology for the press. Though hate speech is hard to define, we believe Spencer’s speech poses a reasonable threat to public safety. Spencer’s speech has incited rampant violence in the past, most notably in Charlottesville, Va., last August, when Heather Heyer died protesting at a Unite the Right rally which Spencer organized. Furthermore, Florida Gov. Rick Scott called a state of emergency when Spencer spoke on the campus of the University of Florida in October. Allowing Spencer to speak would also be contradictory to the University’s diversity, equity and inclusion ideals. We cannot condone the immorality (and irresponsibility) of providing a platform for white supremacist views at our University.
Due to the protections of free speech under the First Amendment, simply denying Spencer an opportunity to speak will likely spark a legal battle. Other prominent public universities, such as Michigan State University and Penn State University, currently find themselves in lawsuits initiated by Spencer after denying his request to speak. His behavior can be categorized as attention-seeking, and until firm legal precedent is established, his tactics will continue from university to university. Therefore, not only is this an opportunity to take direct action against hate speech, but to fight alongside other universities in developing a legal weapon to prevail against these reactive lawsuits. The University can work to set new legal precedents that would likely help protect smaller universities that may not be able to afford hefty legal fees.
We acknowledge that even if the University were to forcefully fight to keep Spencer off campus, he may still prevail. The lawsuit is risky, as the University could relinquish all control they may have over scheduling Spencer's visit. Measures like scheduling Spencer’s potential speech during a restrictive time — such as over a school break — and in a less central venue on campus may not be possible in the case of a lost lawsuit.
However, as the Editorial Board has written about in the past, the string of racist actions on campus has harmed the perception of campus safety and inclusivity, and the University should show unrelenting solidarity with minority students in the current political climate. The University needs to match its rhetoric of student solidarity and inclusiveness with its actions. Accepting Spencer’s speaking request will only add fuel to the fire of a troublingly hostile climate. Regardless, the University needs to be proactive, whether by legal measures or security, in protecting our campus and our students from intentional and degrading hate speech and an influx of white supremacists organizing on campus.
Do you love to debate today’s important issues? Do you want your voice heard? We hold twice-weekly Editorial Board meetings at our newsroom at 420 Maynard St. in Ann Arbor, where we discuss local, state and national issues relevant to campus. We meet Mondays and Wednesdays from 7:15 p.m. to 8:45 p.m.
Learn more about how to join Editboard here.