WASHINGTON — There was a time when America’s colleges and universities considered free speech to be protected as long it didn’t involve inciting a riot or shouting fire in a crowded theater or such. No longer is that true, it seems.
A disruption over Nazi Richard Spencer’s appearance at Michigan State University was clear enough evidence that there is a new tolerance for irrational rhetoric afoot on the campus. Even when it is clear that it will or might lead to violence, administrators are reluctant to deny even the most dangerous speech because they are concerned that to do so diminishes the legitimacy of the academy.
Well so much for the idea that free thought fares better in a nonviolent atmosphere. The free speech movement of the 1960s proved that far more was accomplished by peaceful sit-ins and marches than militant activity. The Weather Underground and its bombs were not nearly as effective as the megaphone demanding the right to calm and measured debate.
But what about the notion of free access to free spaces — the soap box on the corner? Fine, but even Hyde Park has its limits. Smashing the heads of those who agree with the speaker or vice versa doesn’t really occur in the icon of British free speech.
The resurgence of anger among younger white male Americans is rooted in a feeling of social displacement supported at times by the current presidential administration. On the other side, fascism is the most hateful and obnoxious of political movements, one that infuriates any rational human being and pushes him or her toward violent extremes. The minute a Spencer appearance is announced the wheels of angst begin grinding toward mayhem. Our own emotions to the word “Nazi” spark such anger. Its connection to the Holocaust so enrages us that we want to take extreme action against anyone who would find an ounce of nobility in promoting its concepts.
Still, there are the despicable ignoramuses who believe they have the same rights to argue such putrid garbage as those who freely rebut it from the academic stage.
Now here’s the crunch. That might not be the case if they weren’t yelling fire in the crowded theater, which the white supremacists certainly are — and they know it.
College and university presidents these days are hired for their money raising skills; the academic decisions are mainly in the hands of deans and vice presidents of academic affairs. Yet in the end, if things go wrong, the blame is tied to the school’s chief executive, on grounds he has failed to see the dangers and prepare for them.
A long time ago the U.S. Supreme Court gave us the way out. It said there are such things as “fighting words” and applied to the Constitution the restriction of inciting to overthrow the government or panicking an audience resulting in dire consequences by shouting fire when there isn’t one. So, the president or other top administrator has plenty of leeway to deny what he feels is a clear or present danger to the school and its students.
Cities may withhold a permit for a protest march depending on what they believe the outcome may be or the cost or even the lack of adequate security.
For nearly every cause, there are venues where the message can be disseminated safer than on a campus where anger is always quick to ignite. Colleges are vulnerable exactly because they believe it is their duty to expand knowledge everywhere and for whatever the cost, which can be extremely high including injury, death and destruction.
Michigan State officials knew and warned that there might be disruption, and violence; even moving the venue to the far reaches of the campus didn’t help. Fortunately, there were no fatalities in the fights that broke out. But the school should have just said no to Spencer. Their first obligation is always to the students and the institution.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: firstname.lastname@example.org .