Should Richard Spencer be banned from universities?
[This brief response to the title question was commissioned by a national publication to run alongside several others. After Gainesville, the publication decided to drop the series, for reasons not entirely clear. So I post it here.]
Someone who criminally organized racist assault on students and staff at one university can reasonably be excluded from all universities. Regardless of whether to ban his speech, universities should ban his person on grounds that he has shown malicious disregard for distinctions between speech and violence. Indeed, universities should exclude from their campuses everyone involved in organizing the torchlit reenactment at UVa of a white supremacist lynch mob.
What about the speech of other white supremacists, who may champion ideas in Spencer’s August 11 manifesto but do not yet threaten violence? Free speech protections govern public institutions and are a guiding value in all universities. Moreover, engaging those with whom one disagrees is essential to the pursuit of truth, and “contributes vitally to the maintenance of a milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds.”
Witnessing how blinkered attention to free speech rendered UVa administrators obtuse to terror, however, has led me to think that white supremacy should be treated sui generis, rather than as one kind of hate speech. The humanity, equality, and safety of students belonging to groups historically terrorized by white supremacy is no longer up for civil debate.
Yet white supremacy is rarely defended explicitly. Instead, its proxies often troll university commitments to open exchange by performing hostility to the norms that make it possible, including cosmopolitan intercourse of ideas, inclusive consideration, and equality of respect. Trolls are in fact parasitic on those norms, depending on them in order to mock them.
Universities can counter white supremacist trolling in ways that strengthen core norms. Call out their implicit messaging by holding same-day seminars on the cultural tactics of white supremacy. Require those who made the invitation to defend it in open debate. Elevate the platforms of those confronting trolls. Assign speakers to rooms with banners affirming key norms — cosmopolitan intercourse, for example. Instead of calling for students to ignore them, universities should creatively demonstrate how maintaining free inquiry entails repudiating speech that undermines it.