How College Campuses Can Uphold Free Speech AND Shut Down Racists

Give marginalized communities the space to address white nationalists on campus.

Photo Credit: National Lawyers Guild

At the Center for Human and Civil Rights museum in Atlanta, Georgia, there’s an exhibit with headphones where you can sit and experience the verbal abuse that many civil rights activists lived through during the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins. They could not verbally respond to the racists, lest they suffer violent consequences. Instead, they used nonviolent protest to challenge the abusive provocation and impact the national public discourse.

I thought of that exhibit recently, as I read about the spread of racist speech seeking to incite a response on college campuses. Should we disrupt white nationalists, Nazis and other far right views? Or should we, like the civil rights pioneers, find other ways to shut down racist speech? And what role should college administrators and other decision-makers play?

A predictable pattern

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We’re seeing a predictable pattern: The far right funds white nationalist speeches on university campuses seeking to provoke students, faculty and communities. When students and communities push back, the Nazis and other racists gleefully tweet and give media interviews about the chaos that ensued because of the “violent left.” Afterward, university administrators are “embarrassed” that their institution hosted a melee.

Our constitution demands that we fully support nonviolent, non-disruptive protests by students at white supremacist events. The text of the Constitution’s First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “a group’s request to engage in a parade or demonstration involving public display of the Nazi swastika is a symbolic form of free speech that is at least presumptively entitled to First Amendment protections.” However, as University administrators and others should be well aware, in Brandenburg v. Ohio the court also held that “government can punish inflammatory speech” if it is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” Considering the incited violence involving campus speeches at BerkeleyUniversity of California Davis, and others, administrators should carefully consider the implications of Skokie and Brandenburg.

Despite the death of roughly 60,000,000 people in World War II, the U.S. Supreme Court has not allowed a government ban on Nazi hate speech and symbols. So how do we responsibly exercise free speech in higher education and more broadly while holding racists accountable for their history of violence, incitement, and hate?

A productive approach

One productive approach is for university administrators to slate white nationalists (if they insist on hosting them) on debates or panels, with multiple views represented, in place of from-the-podium speeches. This arrangement allows white nationalists to air their racially biased views with direct and immediate debunking that’s put on an equal footing.

Our nation’s colleges and universities are the place where the violent and hateful views of Nazis and other white supremacists should be vigorously challenged. I suspect that many disruptions on campus would be quelled if the views of marginalized communities were formally given the space to address white nationalists, Nazis and other radical right views in campus settings. These events would become productive democratic dialogues, not dangerous monologues.

And why not replicate this in the classroom to address the ongoing outcry from conservatives that their perspectives are sidelined in higher education? I recently lectured in a sophomore seminar course using free speech on campus as the foundation for the class. I asked the students to take a public position and provide evidence to support their arguments. But they were somewhat surprised when I pushed back on their evidence.

Protecting tenure

As faculty, we have the duty to prepare our students to be critical thinkers and ready to engage in serious discourse. I am a believer in the power of evidence and the exchange of ideas—but this concept must be buttressed by our nation’s faculty and students.

For either of these suggestions to be carried out with any consistency, we must protect academic tenure, which has been a recent target of conservatives. The sacred responsibility of academia, and the power of tenure, is the ability to wrestle with our nation’s toughest debates without fear of political reprisal.

For generations, my ancestors had to endure racist abuse from white supremacists in silence. They eventually adopted ingenious nonviolent tactics. Today, we can still resist those who would deny us our rights, but college administrators, faculty and others who invite them to speak must take practical steps to make space for our voices, too.

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 Julian Vasquez Heilig is a Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at California State University Sacramento. He blogs at Cloaking Inequity. Follow him on Twitter @ProfessorJVH.