As an increasing number of universities take a stand against alt-right figures, perhaps it’s the wrong approach.
Suppressing speech only widens its audience- this theory has proven itself true from the times of the ancients up to recent failed totalitarian states like the Soviet Union or the Third Reich. And yet, time and time again, our 21st century society falls into the same pitfall: tragedy, media circus, empty political promises, and then the suppression of personal liberties. Among the first of these liberties to go, and the most dangerous to surrender, is the freedom of speech.
Following the terrorist attack in Charlottesville, universities, business, news networks, and government officials have gone out of their way to capitalize on the public’s shock and disapproval. President Trump, who is no stranger to controversy, was lambasted from the left and right for drawing a moral equivalency between white supremacists and anti-fa counter protestors (who, in all fairness, were likewise armed, and have since been declared a terrorist organization by that state of New Jersey). Members of Trump’s business and tech councils resigned, and the infrastructure council was disbanded altogether. Aside from these CEO’s “moral qualms,” their move was good for business, seeing as the PR boost companies like Campbell’s Soups received for their disavowment of Trump translated to greater revenue. Go figure that white supremacists make for a good business model.
Latest in the string of PR stunts have been public and private universities across the country, along with my very own Penn State, preemptively disinviting Richard Spencer, an alt-right leader, from speaking on campus. There are legitimate concerns about the Constitutionality of publicly funded universities censoring speakers, which had kept many universities reluctant to do so, until now. Since the events of Charlottesville did claim an innocent life, universities have now felt emboldened to claim that Spencer and fellow alt-right speakers incite violence, and therefore their speech is not protected by the first amendment. Meanwhile, in a country based on the presumption of innocence, it seems a little disingenuous to assume a speaker’s intentions, and ban them accordingly, before he or she even asks to speak or offers a topic.
Regardless, such deliberations miss the heart of the issue: silencing people like Richard Spencer only makes them louder. Since Penn State refuses to give him a venue, he could easily take his speech 5 meters off campus at some private venue and attract all the same audience, if not more. Without a doubt, Richard Spencer and his colleagues are jerks, who exploit people’s legitimate economic and cultural concerns in order to earn their spot in the limelight. Unfortunately, universities like Penn State, by silencing alt-right speakers and making them into the martyrs for free speech, are providing the attention that these desperate charlatans crave. If Spencer were to speak on campus, the turnout would be minuscule. What you won’t hear from the smoke-and-mirrors mainstream media is that Spencer’s latest big “white-nationalist” conference had 200-300 people, compared to BronyCon, which annually features over 7,000 men dressed as ponies. Very few people attend such events or listen to extremist speakers, until the extremists make the news. The free speech rally in Boston (a liberal New England city), following the incessant Charlottesville news coverage, had more attendees than the original riot in Virginia.
I couldn’t be happier if Richard Spencer showed up at Penn State, and there to welcome him was a crowd of no more than ten people. We must have the faith in our fellow classmates and citizens that given the option, they will choose diversity, inclusion, and acceptance over anger and hate. And despite the hyped up news coverage focusing on the few individuals who opt for division, the majority of Americans do come together during times of strife, if we let them. Silencing fringe factions with whom we disagree only lends their narrative of establishment oppression credence, diverting us from a genuine discussion of the issues at hand. Trump’s moral equivalency between white supremacists and anti-fascists still has relevance and truth: if we ban seemingly intolerant speakers based on their political ideology or background, how are we any better than them? Let us practice the diversity we preach and allow hateful idiots like Richard Spencer address an empty room on campus.