Op-Ed: Let Spencer speak

Wednesday, March 7, 2018 - 4:16pm

As of late, few topics have stirred more controversy and ignited more debate here at the University of Michigan than free speech. However, the real fight has only begun, as figures like Richard Spencer expose an increasingly dangerous shift in American opinion regarding hate speech. While calls to deny Spencer’s request to speak at the University aim to prevent the elevation of his vile white supremacist ideology, they also represent a far larger threat to the First Amendment.  

The First Amendment, though often touted in defense of personal opinion and creative expression, was not written with the comfort of individuals, or even the majority of individuals, in mind.  On the contrary, it protects even reprehensible and unpopular opinions, precisely because the authors of the Constitution understood the protection of all speech as contingent to the survival of free society.

Therefore, while suppressing Spencer may be the more palatable option for the University community today, it would create a slippery slope enabling the government to later strangle other ideas and beliefs.

To anyone claiming the government could indeed aptly define and exclude “hate” while still protecting “valid” forms of expression, consider that the most prominent white supremacist groups in America currently muster a combined membership of slightly under 15,000, most definitely representing an unpopular set of beliefs in a country of over 320 million citizens. Comparably, in 1950, only about 50,000 Americans were registered members of the Communist Party.  Considering the context of the Cold War at the time, communism in 1950 possessed similar minority standing and attracted similar antipathy as white supremacist ideology does today in America (notwithstanding implicit endorsement by the president, but that’s a matter for another Op-Ed).

Then, as is the case today, Americans were faced with the option of marginalizing and stymieing the minority ideology, with the unpopularity and rarity of communist faith providing the motive and the means to do so. The unchecked and destructive violation of privacy rights and ideological freedom that followed clearly illustrates the consequences of labeling unpopular, even harmful, beliefs as unworthy of protection.

Opponents of Spencer’s right to speak at the University may, however, single out the University as entirely different from other public domains, emphasizing that the University must serve the needs of its students first. These “needs” would assumedly preclude the presence of emotionally burdensome hate speech and the onus of additional security costs that accompany controversial speakers like Spencer.

While not inherently unfounded, as limitations on certain forms of speech do exist when other rights are harmed, these “needs” do not serve a higher public interest than the protection of speech.

In addition to having absolutely no constitutional basis, protection from the content of speech alone reflects a disturbing trend in public opinion. Past decades saw progressive Americans rally against censorship by university administrations, in the hope that students would enjoy the diversity of thought conducive to a liberal education. Among other factors, the increasing dominance of intellectual spheres by identity politics has created a college student body that is now overly sensitive to differing viewpoints. This might help explain the shocking two-fifths of Americans who believe the government should take action to prevent hate speech.

Not only does this statistic reflect a distorted conception of the First Amendment, but it reveals a misguided approach to addressing hate.

While the First Amendment protects hate speech, it simultaneously equips society with the ability to address and defeat these flawed ideologies by providing an open forum for rational argument. The only way Spencer’s views can possibly be dismantled is if those equipped to defeat him are open for debate, not closed off to it.

Other calls for censorship center on the potential for Spencer’s speech to inspire future violence and discrimination, but fail to address the distinction between speech that directly and immediately incites illegal activity, which is already prohibited, and simply hateful rhetoric, which enjoys the protection from liability that includes all other forms of legal speech.

Morever, the onus of additional security costs for any speech by Spencer, though potentially hefty, still fails to present a compelling argument for limiting his rights.

As a public university, the University of Michigan does not only have a paternalistic obligation to its students, but also an obligation to assist in protecting vested public interests, including free speech. Security costs can be mitigated in a variety of ways, and the University has been well within its right as it has pursued such restraints on Spencer as selection of date and location for his speech. Protecting civil liberties does not always come cheap.

It is easy to defend speech when it is normal, popular or uplifting, but society is tested when the speech in question is despised, offensive or even hateful. Spencer’s request to speak at this University is a test of our will to maintain the sanctity of free speech enshrined in the Constitution. Calls for Spencer to be denied, however well-intentioned, fail to realize that the First Amendment’s contribution to democracy lies in its universal application. Let Spencer speak.

Ethan Kessler is an LSA sophomore.