What the University of Michigan should do when Richard Spencer arrives

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Here are five things to know about Richard B. Spencer, largely known for the ‘alt-right’ movement.
USA TODAY

Richard Spencer is not just a vile bigot.

He’s a test, on many levels, of the limits of our understanding and acceptance of free speech.

And he’s also a test, as well as a reminder, of the raw and ugly racial double standards that have extended, historically, far more acceptance to white racist speech (and its often violent consequences) than to other ideas and speakers.

So when Spencer asked, earlier this fall, to rent space at the University of Michigan for a speech in Ann Arbor, the school was left without the possibility of a simple, non-controversial response 

Deny him, and risk being accused of politically correct disavowal of free speech.

Let him speak, and the university would be tarred as an accommodator of racist provocation.

The university chose the latter option, and campus backlash has been swift, and intense.

But there was no wrong choice here. There were just different paths, with different attendant responsibilities.

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The university now has an obligation to ensure that its chosen response to Spencer doesn’t result in the kind of intimidation and threats that he has incited in other contexts. And in the spirit of rigorous debate under the mantle of free speech, the university has to be sure that the context for Spencer’s speech, the other things that happen around it, counter his message effectively.

Reasons to say ‘no’

In my view, the university could have said no to Richard Spencer. 

It’s not about what he says. It’s about the nature and purpose of his speech, and its direct connection to violence.

Think, for a second, about Charlottesville, Va.

After white men took to the streets with torches, chanting racist slogans, there was a predictable clash between organizers of that march and anti-racist protestors that turned violent, and resulted in one woman’s death. 

Spencer showed up a few weeks later, with a new torch march, clearly doubling down on the inappropriate provocation.

In Florida, three neo-Nazi sympathizers showed up to his speech with a gun and fired shots at protesters. 

Spencer is an inciter and provocateur, and even if he denounces violence that happens around him and his speech, he can’t disavow the trail of evidence that connects him to it.

He can preach as much as he wants about white supremacy and the other nonsense that he spews forth. But he has no inherent right to encourage violent reaction to his words, and there is an easy case to make that his speech connects, pretty regularly, to violence.

So it seems like the university could reasonably argue that there is just too much security risk in permitting Spencer to speak, and maybe bring his violent followers to campus.

Several other universities, including Michigan State University, have made the same decision; the courts will ultimately decide the legality of their actions.

The space to speak 

But denying Spencer a space to speak also plays a little too easily into the conceits about liberal academic intolerance, and contravenes the university’s goal of not turning a blind eye to offensive speech, but confronting it with opposing speech, and putting it in a context that helps disarm its effectiveness.

Those aren’t just words, but deep principles that should be driving academia in decision-making.

So while I think Spencer could have been denied in Ann Arbor, he probably shouldn’t have been.

The university is a better, stronger institution when it embraces the most extreme renderings of speech tolerance, the most open-ended attempts to create an unfettered marketplace of ideas.

Part of Spencer’s hope, it seems, is to prove that somehow academia has been warped to deny him and his ilk the same platform that is supposedly given to more liberal ideas.

The university’s strongest counter to that, as well as its strongest possible message, is to give Spencer the space he seeks.

What the university controls

But that grant comes with tremendous responsibility for the university – both in terms of the Spencer speech itself, and the overall free-speech climate on campus.

The goal should be to give Spencer space to speak, but to deny him control of the time, place and manner in which the speech takes place, and to prevent the violence attendant at his other speeches from happening in Ann Arbor.

The university also needs to make as clear as possible how awful Spencer’s ideas are with smart but aggressive counter-programming. Invite other speakers to speak back to his message. Organize – preferably with students – robust events that show the power of town-square-style competition of ideas.

Whatever happens, the university cannot let Spencer have the spotlight alone.

Those are tall burdens on their own.

But added to it, the university has a steep obligation to be sure that the campus climate – already tense from racist incidents this academic year – doesn’t worsen for the students who are the objects of Spencer’s hateful speech.

Earlier this semester, someone scrawled the n-word on the dormitory doors of some African-American students, and a student was filmed urinating on anti-racist chalk drawings on the Diag, the campus’ central square.

Part of Spencer’s aim, no doubt, is to embolden the perpetrators and to intimidate the victims.

It’s up to the university to be sure that doesn’t happen – something that would be easier, frankly, if those perpetrators had been found and punished.

The unviersity’s track record here, historically, is also troublesome.

Like nearly all other American institutions, its history is stained with inequality, and that reaches even into the realm of free speech.

During the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, the principles of free speech were twisted to crack down on dissenting speakers, particularly those who were ethnic minorities. 

How many times since has free speech been denied, for instance, to marginalized groups for fear of potential offense or violence, while white speakers like Spencer have been accommodated?

Just a few years ago, for instance, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker was disinvited from a planned speech at the university for fear that her pro-Palestinian views would be offensive to pro-Israeli donors.

If the university is going to be tolerant of speech as offensive and intimidating as Spencer’s, it had better be sure that it is doing all it can to protect speech equally – more so than other institutions, perhaps, because of its call to principled, open and vigorous debate.

It hasn’t always done that in the past. And it hasn’t ensured that the students who’ll feel victimized by Spencer’s speech also feel like the university has their back. 

The Spencer speech is an opportunity to recommit, and to excel to a space where diversity of thought and reason, as well as diversity of ethnicity and class, are respected for everyone on campus.

Contact Stephen Henderson: [email protected] and @ShendersonFreep on Twitter. LIsten to his his show “Detroit Today,” weekdays at 9 a.m. on WDET-FM (101.9).

 

 

 

 

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