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By denying them a place to speak, some American colleges are playing right into white nationalists’ hands.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill became the latest school to unwisely make a First Amendment martyr out of a racist blowhard last week when it announced it will not rent space to the National Policy Institute for a speech by its president, Richard Spencer.
Texas A&M University and the University of Florida previously turned away Spencer, who advocates for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and the formation of a homeland for a “dispossessed white race.”
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt cited “serious concerns about campus safety” after consulting with university police and local and state law enforcement. Administrators declined to host the event in fear of violent demonstrations.
Under North Carolina’s new campus free speech law, public universities are required to make space available to “any speaker whom students, student groups or members of the faculty have invited.” Since Spencer had not been invited to speak and was seeking to rent space, UNC is off the hook there.
It gets murkier, however, when we examine Folt’s decision through the lens of First Amendment case law. As government institutions, public colleges are forbidden from using viewpoint-based discrimination in choosing who to allow on campus. That prevents government from playing favorites by granting special access to preferred groups while blackballing the opposition.
Using safety as a justification to prevent speech is known as the heckler’s veto. It allows those who threaten violence or disruption to decide who can and cannot speak. It’s a pernicious form of censorship, as the government shuts down expressive events to mollify mobs.
In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an ordinance in Forsyth County, Georgia, that allowed county officials to charge security fees to groups applying for parade permits.
“Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob,” Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in the high court’s 5-4 majority opinion.
Spencer’s views are reprehensible, but banning him from UNC’s stately halls says more about the inability of North Carolina’s flagship public university to keep students and visitors safe than it does about him.
Did Chancellor Folt receive specific threats of violence, and if so, will those responsible be arrested and prosecuted?
Will colleges allow brutes, thugs and vandals to decide who may speak, or will they remain true to their mission as a marketplace of ideas? In such a marketplace, noble views defeat racist blather through open discourse, not suppression.
Spencer might have an actionable First Amendment claim against UNC, and no matter the outcome, North Carolina taxpayers would be put in the position of defending government censorship. A vile racist could flip the script on a state that’s made strides to improve free speech protections.
His courtroom arguments would be more persuasive than the bigoted nonsense he’d spout in a lecture hall. By denying him a small platform, UNC may have unwittingly handed him a bigger one.