The news doesn’t seem to be getting better for Michigan State University any time soon. The university announced last month that it would allow prominent neo-Nazi Richard Spencer to speak on its campus on March 5 as the result of a legal settlement between MSU and the National Policy Institute (NPI), the white-nationalist think tank Spencer co-founded.
MSU’s administration initially resisted allowing Spencer to speak on the grounds that Spencer’s racist message was too vile and threatening to be allowed on a university campus. MSU was sued by Spencer’s colleagues after the university turned down his application to speak, citing the safety concerns involved in keeping its campus safe, not only from the hundreds of neo-Nazis who will show up to hear Spencer speak, but also from potentially thousands of counter-protesters.
According to the terms of the agreement, NPI will pay a $1,650 rental fee for the space on MSU’s campus and pick up the tab for insuring the event. MSU will set up security for the event and cover the police bill required to keep the event peaceful and to protect its campus, which is not expected to come cheap.
Safety at speaking events put on by Spencer and other racists is a serious concern, as we can see by looking back at the last few years of them. Spencer also spoke at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last year, where one counter-protester was murdered and many others were assaulted.
But the safety issue is sort of a side point, really. While I’m sure MSU officials are justifiably concerned with safety on their campus, the prime reason that any sane university president wouldn’t want someone like Spencer to speak at their campus is obvious: He’s a neo-Nazi. In fact, he’s a particularly odious one who uses these speaking events to spread a hateful message of fascism’s impending mass violence.
You don’t have to be a genius to understand why an institution of higher learning wouldn’t want to be associated with that. As MSU’s legal settlement with NPI shows, the real question is, what can a public university do in the face of a neo-Nazi’s first amendment rights? As MSU is a taxpayer-funded government institution, the answer is nearly nothing.
After the administration’s legal defeat, it falls on the students, faculty and the wider community of MSU to choose how to respond to people like Spencer attempting to speak on their campus. Already, student groups at MSU and their partners across the state are organizing a response to Spencer’s speech. Local political and anti-fascist groups are planning to make a showing, and I’ll go out on a limb and say some state politicians will participate in counter-protests as well.
As March approaches, the discussions I have with people on how to respond to Spencer’s speech have steadily turned to tactics. What kind of a counter-protest do we want to see? What would be most effective in combatting fascism in the long term? How concerned, if at all, should we be about the free speech rights of a bunch of racists?
In situations like these, a public university’s hands are pretty much tied. Universities can demand that certain concerns like safety and security are addressed, but in the end, they must let neo-Nazis like Spencer use their public property on occasion.
I won’t be coy about my bias here. My preferred scenario for Spencer’s speaking date is a massive enough number of non-violent protesters showing up and making the situation so unmanageable for police that they are forced to call off the event.
And yes, I know that may offend many readers’ sensibilities about public speech and the First Amendment. I concede that shutting down neo-Nazi events prevents them from exercising their rights to political speech. That’s the point.
Being a neo-Nazi is not just another difference of opinion, one of many equally valid positions floating around out there. The very act of being a fascist is a violent threat of ethnic cleansing. The violent threats explicitly made by neo-Nazis like Spencer do not constitute legitimate speech worthy of our protection, and in fact stoke hatred and make future violence much more likely.
Non-violently shutting down Spencer’s speech would not be an act of political oppression; it would be an act of collective self-defense.