Should Universities Ban White Supremacist Speakers?

Should Universities Ban White Supremacist Speakers? main image

In the past week, both the University of Florida and Texas A&M University announced they were banning planned white supremacist rallies from campus, citing safety concerns.

The decisions came after a Unite the Right protester allegedly rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a 32-year-old woman and injured 34 people.

In a press statement issued on Wednesday, the University of Florida said that while, “the University of Florida remains unwaveringly dedicated to free speech and the spirit of public discourse […] the First Amendment does not require a public institution to risk imminent violence to students.”

It may seem obvious to certain people that universities shouldn’t be offering a platform to neo-nazis, but, to many civil rights organizations, any attempt by a public institution to restrict an individual’s right to speak, be it a white supremacist or an Occupy Wall Street campaigner, is tantamount to government censorship and an erosion of the public’s basic civil liberties.

The nonpartisan civil liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has said: “We are seeing here a national discussion on white supremacists, but it’s easy to imagine the current administration making similar arguments about Black Lives Matter activists.”

“The point is that offense is inherently subjective, and to use the viewpoint of a speaker as grounds for censoring them, no matter how offensive it might seem, is unfair, as that same rationale will be employed to censor speech that one agrees with.”

“Simply banning a speaker because his viewpoint is odious, racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive, is a recipe for further censorship.”

It’s the same rationale that led the American Civil Right Liberties Union (ACLU) to file a lawsuit against the city of Charlottesville to stop it from moving the white supremacist rally in Virginia to a remote park, away from the center of town.

The ACLU defended its position on Saturday on the basis that “the First Amendment is a critical part of our democracy, and it protects vile, hateful, and ignorant speech. For this reason, the ACLU of Virginia defended the white supremacists’ right to march. But we will not be silent in the face of white supremacy. Those who do stand silent enable it. That includes our president.”

So, are the University of Florida and Texas A&M University violating the First Amendment, or at the very least skirting around it, by stopping a white nationalist speaker from speaking on campus? The side of the argument you find yourself on really boils down to whether or not you believe that campus safe spaces have an impact on preventing neo-nazi views from proliferating. Safe spaces were introduced in response to the realization that certain arguments about subjects such as transgenderism, sexual orientation and race could be triggering for particular students. However, this attempt to protect the most vulnerable has led to an increasing number of speakers being banned for unpopular views. By ridding campuses of all offensive discourse, we risk snuffing out intellectual debate altogether.

Many people find it hard to reconcile the liberal belief that all speakers should be given the right to speak on a university campus, with the fact this opens the door to white supremacists and others with extremist views. The debate around free speech on campuses isn’t likely to find an answer to these dilemmas any time soon, but there’s something to be admired in the position of ACLU who will defend a group’s right to say something, even if they fundamentally disagree with them. Simultaneously allowing people their freedom of speech and protesting against the content of their speech may be the only path forwards.

Originally published on  on 18th of September 2017