Thoughts on Hate Speech at Academic Institutions
On October 19th, 2017, white nationalist Richard Spencer is scheduled to speak at the University of Florida. As a Gainesville resident, I’m grateful to live in a place where there is so much concern and interesting, morally-motivated debate around this event. I also feel inclined to consider the issues carefully myself and contribute my thoughts to the wider conversation. As Spencer tries to line up speaking engagement at campuses across the US, these considerations may be helpful for those at other campuses also. This is a long post so skip to the summary if you want the main points without any explanation.
Issue 1: Should Spencer be allowed to speak at all?
Spencer should not be allowed to speak
To me, one of the strongest arguments against granting Spencer the right to speak at UF is the argument that, in this context, his free speech comes into direct conflict with other rights, namely, rights of individuals in the vicinity of the event. According to legal author E.A. Gjelten, “The Supreme Court has carved out exceptions to First Amendment protections for speech that threatens someone with violence, incites listeners to take illegal action, or is harmful in certain other ways.” In a recent Gainesville Sun article, several UF faculty argued that “Federal labor law is unambiguous: It is the responsibility of employers to maintain a safe working environment for employees at all times. There are no exceptions. We are disappointed that the individuals who advocate for a Spencer visit to campus have ignored the rights of thousands of employees to safety and dignity on the job.” The right to free speech is the right to civil discourse, while the speech of Richard Spencer incites hatred and violence.
“The Supreme Court has carved out exceptions to First Amendment protections for speech that threatens someone with violence, incites listeners to take illegal action, or is harmful in certain other ways.”
Denying Spencer the right to speak due to safety concerns has been the decision of several other universities. In a recent article, Penn State President Eric Barron explained his universities reason for denying Spencer a speaking engagement on campus: “After critical assessment by campus police, in consultation with state and federal law enforcement officials, we have determined that Mr. Spencer is not welcome on our campus, as this event at this time presents a major security risk to students, faculty, staff, and visitors to campus…It is the likelihood of disruption and violence, not the content, however odious, that drives our decision.”
A different argument is presented by UF professor of Holocaust studies, Norman J.W. Goda. He argues that threats of violence aside, Spencer’s messages are “falsified nonsense” and giving that nonsense a platform is contrary to the mission of the university: “Is Spencer’s speech protected on a university campus? An untenured professor spouting this rubbish would be fired, notowing to the university’s rejection of free speech, but because falsified nonsense fraudulently passed off as scholarship, even absent the violent implications, is contrary to the mission of an accredited university. We should not allow the Richard Spencers of the world to use us, and we should not be a party to our own debasement, without a challenge. If such people want to use our campus as a backdrop, let them argue their right to do so in court so that their pretenses will be examined in the light of day. We will thereby make it clear for everyone that their mission and ours should never cross paths.”
Yet another argument against granting Spencer speaking rights is the normalization and/or empowerment of a group and their ideas that occurs when members of that group coalesce to speak about their ideas. This is especially true when media joins to report the event to a wider audience and the speaker is seen as more credible simply by association with the institute at which he is presenting his views. When empowerment of a group may incite future violence, the “threat of violence” restriction on free speech is less clear or certain.
Spencer should be allowed to speak
To me, one of the strongest arguments for allowing Spencer to speak is to avoid setting a precedent where freedom of speech can be challenged in the future. This is the view of organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida chapter of the ACLU for the last 20 years, agrees with UF’s decision to host Spencer. According to Simon, “We need to do what the city of Charlottesville failed to do and that is to have a good law enforcement plan in place that will keep both sides separate…The first amendment has got to work for everyone the first amendment does work for everyone regardless of their point of view.”
“We need to do what the city of Charlottesville failed to do and that is to have a good law enforcement plan in place that will keep both sides separate…The first amendment has got to work for everyone the first amendment does work for everyone regardless of their point of view.”
Preventing Spencer from holding an event at UF may seem like the best thing right now for Gainesville. But what are the long-term repercussions of a university winning a lawsuit blocking Spencer from speaking? I’m not just thinking about a few months or years from now, but 50 or 100 years from now. In that span of time, policies change, new laws are erected and existing ones amended so that every aspect of life that has laws governing it is subject to slightly (or drastically) different laws. The First Amendment is one of the few exceptions – a pillar of our democracy that supersedes other laws, policies, and principles. For this reason, it is uniquely immune to the changes that occur as our political climate and popular standards of right and wrong change for better and for worse.
Morality is messy, and so is the law. There are numerous scenarios where one moral principle seems to compromise another, some rights seem to compromise others, or two or more contradictory or conflicting laws apply to the same situation. Complicated legal cases draw upon historical precedents to argue for the appropriate action to take. Our legal system proceeds mostly by drawing from the laws as they are written, and in cases where those laws are ambiguous, the rulings of previous cases act as a guide to laws in context.
Imagine Spencer is successfully denied the right to speak at UF. Now imagine another speaker wishes to speak at another public university in the future. There is a large contingent of people for whom, this speaker is just as controversial as Spencer was. Only this person speaks about the merits of equal rights, non-violent communication, education, environmental protection, and science. Violent protest is also possible. But in this scenario, would you want the law to lean on the side of denying speaking rights, based on the precedent made with Spencer? Or would you prefer UF ratchet up their security so that freedom of speech is secured?
Explaining his position to defend free speech even if repugnant, Anthony Romero, director of the national office of the ACLU says: “Some have argued that we should not be putting resources toward anything that could benefit the voices of white supremacy. But we cannot stand by silently as the government repudiates the principles we have fought for — and won — in the courts when it violates clearly established First Amendment rights.
Invoking the threat of violence cannot serve as the government’s carte blanche to shut down protests. If that were the case, governments would almost always be able to shut down protests, even when the protesters themselves are peaceful, because others could exercise a heckler’s veto through violence or the threat of violence. We must not give government officials a free pass to cite public safety as a reason to stifle protest.”
“Invoking the threat of violence cannot serve as the government’s carte blanche to shut down protests. If that were the case, governments would almost always be able to shut down protests, even when the protesters themselves are peaceful, because others could exercise a heckler’s veto through violence or the threat of violence. We must not give government officials a free pass to cite public safety as a reason to stifle protest.”
Another argument is that denying Spencer the right to speak makes white nationalists feel like the martyrs of free speech. It’s counterintuitive, but psychologically speaking, denying someone something they feel they have the right to will strengthen their conviction, not stifle their will.
Finally, on practical grounds, Spencer should be allowed to speak at UF because if he is blocked from speaking, he will sue with a solid chance of winning the case. Legal fees will be added to the cost of security around his visit, which will occur if he wins. In that case, he will come to the university portraying himself the one on the right side of the First Amendment – a First Amendment hero.
Issue 2: Given that Spencer is speaking, what actions should residents take?
On protesting the event
Historically protests have been an important part of effecting change in society. Famous historical examples abound including Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March, the 1913 Suffrage Parade, the Delano Grape Boycott, Rosa Parks’ Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Singing Revolution of Estonia. In addition to standout examples, it has been the role of countless protests to slowly or swiftly, bring broad attention to an issue. Broad attention ushers the way for broad support. Broad support puts pressure on lawmakers for legislative action and on individuals to accept and/or conform to the consensus of the masses.
A unified front of non-violent protesters, especially if outnumbering pro-Spencer attendees, sends a message that our community does not accept Spencer’s ideas. Recently in Boston, a group of white nationalists gathered to chant hateful speech aimed at Jewish people and minorities at Boston Common park. However, their voices were hardly audible above the chants of a much larger group of counter-protesters (around 15,000). With strength in numbers, counter-protestors left the event with a sense of solidarity and of victory. As one counter-protestor expressed, “It’s good to know that the community is standing up for everyone…We’re not alone.”
“It’s good to know that the community is standing up for everyone…We’re not alone.”
At the Boston rally, a combination of factors contributed to the outcome of the event. Among the most vital, an adherence to non-violence by civilians and a strong police force that avoided violent confrontation with civilians.
Another example involving violence and casualty ended up quite differently: In Charlottesville on August 11-12, 2017, just days before the Boston rally, many were injured and one counter-protester died during a white nationalist protest that happened between semesters on the University of Virginia campus. In this case, due to city ordinances, the city did not enact recommended restrictions for the event including banning weapons and sticks and blocking traffic for at least ten blocks.
Aside from the risk of violence, there is also the inevitable media attention that an event brings when it is attended (or anticipated to be attended) by large numbers of protesters and counter-protesters. Continued media attention raises awareness of something, normalizes it’s presence, and informs acceptable reactions to it. What is being brought to our attention and normalized in this case? White nationalist events, Richard Spencer, and public reaction to it. Normalizing has the effect of legitimizing to a greater or lesser extent depending on how it’s presented.. One example of this: scientists skeptical of climate change, who even though they are in the vast minority, get a disproportionate amount of media attention turning actual scientific consensus into a perceived scientific debate. Continuing to present a fringe group’s ideas in the form of a debate between one member of that fringe group and another person representing an educated response is the perfect way to legitimize the fringe side by presenting them as an entire half of an educated debate. Continued media attention normalizes all aspects of events like these, including the reaction to them. Depending on the outcomes, it may become the norm to see white nationalist events being outnumbered and/or overpowered by non-violent protestors. Some would argue that regardless of what is portrayed in the media, any kind of attention ultimately helps groups like the alt-right.
Continued media attention raises awareness of an something, normalizes it’s presence, and informs acceptable reactions to it.
Emphasizing the importance for non-violence: A single act of violence coming from those opposed to Spencer’s speech can be magnified by a media outlet looking to paint the event as a violent opposition by the left to deny someone their freedom of speech. And a single act of violence can trigger a cascade of violence. This compromises and muddles the message that we are a peaceful, rational, strong, and non-divisive force for good. It calls our presence into question – that sort of attention belongs to the hate group.
It’s also worth asking if a large protest will make a campus more or less attractive to future hate groups and specifically, to a revisit from Spencer himself.
Protesting an event like this one carries risks. Those risks include personal injury and generating the raw material for irresponsible, short-sighted, or excessive media attention. Minimizing these risks involves a concerted effort between the city and the event’s host to take precautionary measures that maximize the safety of individuals. It also involves avoiding violent confrontation by encouraging, planning for, and educating on non-violent, peaceful means of protest.
On ignoring the event
I would argue that the intention of protests against Spencer are more about sending a message to white nationalists and targeted members of the community than about drawing attention to an issue. Protestors want to send a message to white nationalists that they are outnumbered and their ideas are not acceptable in our community. Protestors also want to send a message to those in the community that are the object of discrimination by white nationalists that we, as a community, have their backs.
It’s important to draw this distinction because historically, protests have been effective at drawing attention in order to change something that is entrenched or accepted in our society – a law or a socially acceptable way of behaving. By protesting an event and the larger movement behind it, we are, whether we like it or not, drawing attention to that movement. In cases where the event in question cements the status quo, we draw attention to the need for change. In cases where the event involves a fringe group attempting to challenge the status quo, we risk adding momentum to that movement by drawing attention (especially media attention) to it. When media coverage overwhelmingly treats white nationalists with a tone of condemnation, that dissuades people from publicly endorsing white nationalist beliefs and informs socially acceptable responses to white nationalist beliefs. On the other hand, depending on the media source, the material can be displayed to tell a variety of stories. Moreover, being condemned by society can fuel solidarity among members who feel ostracized. And being aware of the surge of confrontational events in headline news can embolden white nationalist groups as a narrative of a battleground is propagated.
In cases where the event in question cements the status quo, we draw attention to the need for change. In cases where the event involves a fringe group attempting to challenge the status quo, we risk adding momentum to that movement by drawing attention (especially media attention) to it.
A recent Rolling Stone article by Molly Knefel warns that ignoring white nationalism validates it. Drawing a parallel to school bullying, Knefel argues: “[T]he best way to prevent violence is to build solidarity. Ignoring bullying doesn’t make it go away, but organizing the community against it can. So it’s not just that ignoring white supremacist violence won’t make it go away, although of course it won’t. It’s that to ignore white supremacist violence, as a society, is to sanction it.” I would argue that it’s worth noting the difference between ignoring ideas and ignoring actions. We may choose not to push back (and necessarily draw attention to) speaking events while standing up against actions (including words) that are directly abusive if they arise. However, thoughts often lead to words and words often lead to actions. Also, (nonviolent) protest of a speech may psychologically prep someone to take action against actual instances of abuse in the future.
If the Spencer event draws a large contingent of his followers, and the number of protestors of the event is marginal or nonexistent, what will be the reaction of Spencer’s followers? Will those in attendance be emboldened by the absence of protestors? Without protestors, will they feel that their beliefs are sanctioned? Will they go looking for trouble outside of the event – in streets, on campus, in bars? Or will the absence of protestors be like the absence of kindling – giving them nothing to do but listen to their leader speak and go home? 
On holding an alternative event
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) receives questions daily about how to handle hate groups. As an organization “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society”, they have assembled a guide (viewable and downloadable here) with ten ways to respond to hate. Briefly, these include:
- Act – “Do something. In the face of hatred, apathy will be interpreted as acceptance by the perpetrators, the public and — worse — the victims. Community members must take action; if we don’t, hate persists.”
- Join Forces – “Reach out to allies from churches, schools, clubs, and other civic groups. Create a diverse coalition. Include children, police, and the media. Gather ideas from everyone, and get everyone involved.”
- Support the victims – “Hate crime victims are especially vulnerable.”
- Speak up – “Hate must be exposed and denounced. Help news organizations achieve balance and depth.”
- Educate yourself – “An informed campaign improves its effectiveness. Determine if a hate group is involved, and research its symbols and agenda. Understand the difference between a hate crime and a bias incident.”
- Create an Alternative – “Do not attend a hate rally.”
- Pressure Leaders – “Elected officials and other community leaders can be important allies.”
- Stay Engaged – “Promote acceptance and address bias before another hate crime can occur.”
- Teach Acceptance – “Bias is learned early, often at home. Schools can offer lessons of tolerance and acceptance.”
- Dig Deeper – “Look inside yourself for biases and stereotypes.”
The explicit advice to not attend a hate rally is emphasized. According to SPLC, “confrontations serve only the perpetrators” while alternative events “give people a safe outlet for the frustration and anger they want to vent.” They advise holding a unity rally on a different part of campus. They suggest alternative events be at the same hour, some distance away, and emphasize strength in community and diversity. Alternative events include forums, parades, and unity fairs with guest speakers, food, exhibits, and entertainment.
In another article supporting this approach, historian of Weimar and Nazi Germany Laurie Marhoefer argues, “We have an ethical obligation to stand against fascism and racism. But we also have an ethical obligation to do so in a way that doesn’t help the fascists and racists more than it hurts them.” According to Marhoefer, Nazi events and rallies where violence erupted helped the Nazis build a dictatorship by drawing media attention, escalating street violence, and enabling the construction of a fear-based narrative where the antifascists were the “pugnacious, lawless left” and Nazis were the victims. An analogous narrative may be unlikely to build from your news sources but keep in mind how many other media outlets exist. And even if most media outlets aren’t likely to paint white nationalists as the victims, any violence surrounding confrontational events is likely to get broad media attention, which could result in a more fear-based society ready to accept increased police presence or surveillance.
Weighing Pros and Cons
To summarize what’s been discussed, here’s a list the ideas presented organized as pros and cons. If you’re just looking at the summary, be aware that each idea is fleshed out in the contents of this post.
The numbers make a difference
Before I summarize the points already made, I want to point out that all discussion so far has implicitly worked from the assumption that everyone is choosing the same strategy. If you are personally deciding what to do about this event or one like it, it’s important to keep in mind what you except most people to do, what you except some people to do, and what a small minority of people may do. For instance, you may think that peaceful protest is the best strategy, but if you have reason to think the protest you’re involved in will not be peaceful (if for example, security surrounding the event is poorly planned), then that strategy falls apart. On the other hand, the strategy to ignore the event may be the best solution in your mind, but like the example of using the dove strategy in a game of hawkdove, the merits of that strategy apply to that extent that everyone uses it. Similarly, you may prefer the idea of a unity rally but anticipate the scenario where alt-right attendees/counterprotestors outnumber protestors. This could have the affect of making our community and it’s targeted members feel less safe, which may be a worse outcome than if protestors outnumbered Spencer’s guests. Numbers (and outliers) make a difference, so keep in mind the most likely scenarios when making your decision on how to engage (or not engage) with the event.
Spencer is NOT allowed to speak
- Residents are protected from safety concerns that Spencer’s event brings
- Spencer and alt-right don’t get a platform that spreads (and works to legitimize) their message
- If Spencer is blocked and loses in a lawsuit against UF, First Amendment is more open to compromise in the future
- If Spencer is blocked but wins in a lawsuit against UF, he can portray himself as a First-Amendment hero.
- If Spencer is blocked but wins in a lawsuit against UF, add legal fees to costs of Spencer’s visit.
Spencer is allowed to speak
- No legal precedent is created that compromises the First Amendment
- No self-righteous anger and bonding among Spencer’s cohort at being denied their First Amendment rights
- Contributes to normalization and legitimization of alt-right platform
- Decent chance of (some level of) violence/aggression during Spencer’s visit
Event is attended by protestors
- If protestors outnumber pro-Spencer attendees and event remains relatively peaceful, community feels empowered and targeted members of the community feel protected
- If protestors outnumber alt-right/white nationalists, those individuals feel societal pressure not to express their ideology publicly.
- If protestors outnumber at-right attendees and remain peaceful, an strong, engaged, and peaceful response is strengthened as the socially acceptable response to the alt-right and other hate groups.
- Media attention helps the normalize the presence of the alt-right/white nationalists in society
- If protest becomes violent, it increases fear and helps to motivate increased policy presence and surveillance in society
- If protests become violent, regardless of who initiated the violence, the side protesting alt-right could be portrayed as dangerous/threatening.
Event is ignored
- Spencer and his movement are denied media attention and the momentum that comes from it .
- Safety and security risk at the immediately surrounding the event is lowered. Law enforcement are spared from dealing with a tense scenario.
- Ignoring event implicitly sanctions it.
- Members and sympathizers of alt-right/white nationalists may feel licensed or less afraid to express their beliefs publicly
- Community feels connected and empowered. Targeted indivuals feel more security knowing community shares values of inclusiveness.
- If event is large enough, media attention is co-opted/diverted by alternative event.
- Could be interpreted like ignoring, with same cons.
We as a community should ask ourselves what we can do, now and moving forward, to create a community and a country of love and inclusiveness. Spencer’s visit is a large and complex affair and the consequences, both long and short term, are difficult to predict. Events like these compel an examination of the issues surrounding them – free speech, hate groups, the nature of and nuances of protest, divisiveness, and so on. Events like these be the question: what can we do to prevent them from manifesting in the first place (aside from blocking them on legal grounds)?
Work to create a better society all around
Being a healthy, engaged, and educated citizen will help cultivate an environment that encourages the growth of a healthy, engaged, and educated society. This includes voting, volunteering, caring, getting others to vote, care, and volunteer by setting an example and communicating why it matters to others. This includes working to elect progressives into local, state, and national office. It includes working to update unjust laws that restrict civil rights (like the right to vote) and make it hard for families to support themselves. It includes learning and being involved in the community. It includes being conscious of where your money is going and voting with your wallet as well as going to the ballot box.
Finding individual opportunities to engage hate
Protests and rallies are often large, attention-getting events centered on the object of protest, which can be a large-attention getting event itself. As such, they stand out as landmarks that media outlets and historians can point to as important causal factors when an element of the political landscape, the legal system, or society as whole undergoes change. But just because large events with well-defined temporospatial boundaries are easy to name, identify, and report on does not mean that they are the most effective agents of change. I would argue that the most significant change occurs in minds, on an individual level. This kind of change doesn’t come with large events or media attention. It can’t be achieved by condemning someone but by connecting with them. Connecting does not mean condoning, it means creating the space for that person to feel safe being vulnerable. That is the space that must exist for someone to examine their beliefs and consider change.
Connecting does not mean condoning, it means creating the space for that person to feel safe being vulnerable. That is the space that must exist for someone to examine their beliefs and consider change.
Obviously, this means of change must happen many times for society to show signs of change. It’s not a single protest or even hundreds of protests, it’s thousands, millions, or billions of significant interactions between individuals. Examples of this sort of change happen when one family member offers the other members a relatively non-threatening contact point to ideas they disagree with. With time and persistence, family members may come to change their views. This happens when people come to discussions, even uncomfortable discussions, with the underlying understanding that they each want the best for the other, as happens in many families.
Ignoring white nationalists will not make them feel ostracized, outnumbering them in protest will. Is this what we want? When a group feels ostracized, they may, in certain contexts, feel less emboldened to speak and act in ways that would identify them as part of that group. And maybe that’s enough – to feel safe knowing the alt-right sympathizers/members in our midst feel social pressure barring them from acting out. On the other hand, ostracism strengthens bonds within individuals of an ostracized group. Many individuals who join groups like white nationalists groups do so because they already feel ostracized from society for one reason or another, and they latch onto the comradery they feel with others in a similar position. In this case, accepting the individuals who identify with white nationalist and hate groups (while rejecting the ideas of the groups they belong to) is possibly the most effective means of changing minds. Making this actionable requires interaction on an individual level as opportunities for dialogues appear. Protests and rallies are among the least appropriate places for this strategy to unfold.
Focus on the undecided
There are people who support alt-right and white nationalist ideology and membership, there are people who oppose it, and there are people who haven’t decided. Maybe they just don’t care to give it any thought, or maybe they are curious or compelled by something in the alt-right movement. It may be a person who feels ostracized from society for some reason. It may be a man who has been laid off, is having trouble putting food on the table, feels uncertain of his future, and wonders if immigrants are to blame for his economic strife. It could be a spoiled kid who grew up in privilege and doesn’t like the more level playing field he experiences as he gets older. Since it is a more difficult task to interface in a meaningful way with entrenched supporters of the white nationalist movement, it’s important to think about those still undecided. What is the effect of our actions on the undecided? What actions can we take to move them away from white nationalist ideology? Consider such a person is presented with the opportunity to attend a Spencer talk. They would undoubtedly be curious. The presence of protestors may shame them away from attending but probably won’t extinguish their curiosity. Unless they feel similarly compelled and invited to consider alternative viewpoints addressing the same concerns or issues that led them to the alt-right movement, they will likely eventually form some level of sympathy with alt-right views. For instance, the fictional man who has been laid off may instead turn his anger away from immigrants and towards the handful of wealthy individuals that control all of the countries wealth. But only if the opportunity to receive this alternative message is available and approachable to him. The privileged kid may decide not to embrace alt-right views after he encounters stories from friends that illustrate the harm that divisive ideology can have. The point is, we need to counter speech like Spencer’s, not simply with our own speech. That means opening up to others about hurtful experiences and providing opportunities for education in the community through multiple venues and speakers so that the comfort zone is expanded beyond that afforded by one type of speaker, venue, or organization.
Maybe there is no ideal way to proceed in a compromised situation. By carefully considering all options and the potential repercussions, both immediate and long-term, and acting from a desire to elevate our community, I hope that we can do more good than harm.
 This applies to those in agreement with and perhaps, those in opposition to, his words. This is an important distinction as the speech of some historically controversial figures eg, Martin Luther King, may have inadvertantly stirred up hatred and violence, but those in agreement with his message were encouraged to practice peace and tolerance.
 Recently, many Universities have blocked Spencer from speaking including Auburn University, Michigan University, UNC Chapel Hill, Louisiana State, Ohio State, Pennsylvania State University, and Texas A&M, all citing safety concerns. Auburn lost the lawsuit. “In April, a federal judge reversed Auburn University’s cancellation of a Spencer event, finding no evidence that Spencer advocated violence, and ruling that a decision based on the content of the speech was a violation of the First Amendment.” A similar lawsuit was filed against Michigan State on September 3rd and the threat of a lawsuit has compelled UF and potentially Ohio State to concede to let Spencer speak. Since the Auburn case, the Spencer-led Charlottesville rally, which injured many and killed one counter-protester, has added support for to the argument that Spencer’s events present a threat of violence. Will this event affect the courts’ decisions in cases moving forward? At Texas A&M, Spencer spoke in December 2016, but was blocked from speaking on September 11th of this year. A&M cited safety concerns that have arisen since the last speaking engagement in addition to a new campus policy. “Texas A&M officials said that the university changed its policy after December’s protest so that an outside individual or group had to have the sponsorship of a university-sanctioned group. No organization agreed to sponsor the September event.” Will Texas A&M have a stronger argument in court for being motivated by safety concerns, given that they’ve allowed Spencer in the past? Will their new campus policy make their case stronger? Time will tell.