Op-Ed: The University dodges responsibility

Monday, November 27, 2017 - 1:26pm

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools in the country. Yet Jim Crow advocates knew how to push against the letter and spirit of the law, drawing on the power of local government. In order to win their most basic civil and human rights, African-American leaders and their allies had to repeatedly appeal to the Supreme Court, whose rulings bore far less power in the South than local sheriffs’ batons and attack dogs. Northerners, of course, had their own strategies to maintain segregation: moving to the suburbs, sending their children to private schools and suffocating public education funding, allowing people of color minimal opportunity to join universities like ours.

But when it comes to the civil rights of neo-Nazis, abiding law and protecting its letter (not spirit) obsessively is almost always the default. In 1978, the American Civil Liberties Union defended neo-Nazis’ right to march in Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb where a large community of Holocaust survivors resided. They did so in the name of free speech, of course.

Now, the University of Michigan Board of Regents has reluctantly began work on scheduling Richard Spencer's talk on our campus. Spencer rose to public consciousness after the 2016 elections, when he was filmed in Washington, D.C., yelling “Hail Trump!” and toasting to Nazi salutes from a crowd of supporters. His speech at the event included statements such as “To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror” and “We don’t exploit other groups. We don’t gain anything from their presence.” His corollary political agenda — a “peaceful ethnic cleansing” of non-white and non-Christian people from the United States — all but mirrors the German Nazi Party’s agenda from the early 1930s. The murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va., last August is testimony that he and his followers do not only speak violence: They practice it.

Here is University President Mark Schlissel’s response, in a letter explaining why the administration would let Spencer speak in campus: “a democratic society without free speech is unimaginable.”

Schlissel is misrepresenting the substantive meaning of free speech. Rejecting Spencer would not take away his right to speak freely, but only deny his request for a microphone and stage in a specific university — something that the First Amendment does not explicitly protect. Spencer, unfortunately, will continue speaking freely throughout the country: Neo-Nazi websites give him better access to free speech than most of us will ever have. It is also hard to understand how letting Spencer speak will achieve anything like protecting democracy.

We are left with Schlissel’s second reasoning: “we are legally prohibited from blocking such requests based solely on the content of that speech, however sickening it is.” I am not a legal expert, and I trust that Schlissel receives excellent legal advice. It is unsurprising that U.S. law prioritizes neo-Nazis’ right for a stage and microphone at a public university over the safety of this university’s community. It may also be the case, however, that a viable legal strategy exists, since other universities chose a different path: Michigan State UniversityOhio State UniversityPenn State University, the University of North Carolina and Auburn University denied Spencer’s requests. Their leaders made Spencer work harder to propagate hate and violence, though not as hard as white supremacists made civil rights advocates work for racial equality.

And what if Spencer wins in court? Appeal. And if he wins in the Supreme Court? Ignore the decision. Show your utter contempt of court and willingness to resist a law requiring universities to give microphones and stages to violent neo-Nazis. Lock buildings’ doors and shut off power. Instruct campus police to arrest Spencer and his followers for disturbance of peace if they show up. Let Trump send U.S. marshals to escort Spencer to his lectures, Ruby Bridges style. You can do it as a university president. Public officials in the South had done similar things, and it will clarify who stands on which side of history.

President Schlissel’s last argument was that “denying the request would provide even more attention to the speaker and his cause and allow him to claim a court victory.” This is a fair point, but a week after the board’s decision, it seems clear that allowing Spencer to speak would give him no less attention. He can also claim victory in a battle he won without fight.

Schlissel recommended that students “ignore” Spencer, “deprive him of the attention he needs to survive and deny him the crowds he craves.” Spencer’s crowds, however, are not from our university: He brings them from the outside. They could march in our streets with hoods, torches and swastikas, and they might murder — all things they did in Charlottesville. Some students will counterprotest. Others will lock their doors, shut their windows and follow the news with fear. But respectfully, I do not think anyone can expect them to ignore that neo-Nazis are coming to our city.

Ultimately, the board and the president missed an opportunity to assume responsibility and lead the fight to close our campus to neo-Nazis, leaving resistance in the hands of students. Let us all hope that despite this decision, no one will get hurt.

Roi Livne is an assistant professor of sociology.

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