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An Interview with Aaron Spring

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Aaron Spring, the Fordham student asked to leave a university coffee shop for wearing a “Make America Great Again Hat” answers whether businesses should be allowed to discriminate against people they disagree with politically and whether he would consider returning to the coffee shop.

On December 13th, 2017, Aaron Spring, the Fordham University student who made national news for a confrontation in a university coffee shop, joined Merion West‘s Erich Prince to discuss his experience, the issue of freedom of expression on college campuses, and to respond to a conservative critic of his actions.

Thank you for being with us today, Aaron. Your story has been picked up by some major news outlets over the past few days. For our readers, who haven’t heard about what happened, can you walk us through your experience?

Some friends and I met-up, and we happened to be wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and American flag hats. We walked into a coffee shop to converse with one other, and we were kicked out because of the clothes we were wearing. The coffee shop’s staff, which I guess were mainly comprised of far-left liberals, were not too happy with our attire. But we were simply expressing our First Amendment rights and supporting our President.

Just to clarify, how long were you at the coffee shop prior to being asked to leave?

I would say about ten to fifteen minutes. We had bought coffee, we already sat down, and we were talking — and I didn’t actually leave after being asked to, so I was probably there for an hour and a half. They tried to kick me out, but I wasn’t leaving.

Would you say this experience has made you more afraid to express your political beliefs publicly? Do you think it’s emboldened you to be more expressive? Or will you simply continue on as you normally might?

I think you hit it right on the head. This is how I normally go about. I never let anybody’s views determine how I dress or how I view myself. So I am always going to be expressing freedom of speech and expressing my love for this country. In fact, I think it has emboldened me a little bit because I know the country is behind me. Millions of people saw what happened, and I’ve received thousands of messages on Facebook that have basically shown support for me and for our cause. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted about it. And again, this isn’t about me. This is about a broader movement to get free speech recognized for all students — not just conservatives, but liberals as well. While it has emboldened me, I am simply a face for the overall movement seeking equality for all views.

I saw that Fordham University had released a statement in the aftermath of the event that it does not have safe spaces on campus. That might indeed be official policy, but do you find that, in practice, this might not be the case? Is there a disconnect between the official policy of the university and day-to-day on campus living?

I feel as if people who work for the university, in terms of faculty and professors, definitely follow that. They’re not afraid to call people out and challenge you, and rough us up a little bit, in terms of thinking differently and accepting other views. I have yet to take a class where I have been attacked for having different views. So I think it does hold true that [the university] is not a safe space. If something offends you, “Oh well.” The controversy is that [certain students] tried to establish a safe space at this coffee shop. Meanwhile, Fordham did not condone that “safe space.” In my opinion, these people are hiding from reality by trying to establish a safe space because the real world is not a safe space. And if you get trapped in the safe space that is academia, you’re hurting yourself because life is tough.

I don’t know if you saw the National Review this morning, but there was an article by Tyler Grant. He’s also contributed at Merion West in the past, and he was critical of what you were doing. I’ll quote him here: “The validity of safe spaces aside, the story is clear: A group of conservatives wanted to prove they could rile up their fellow students by wearing MAGA hats at a progressive campus hotspot. They proved their hypothesis but won over no new conservatives.”

So Mr. Grant is suggesting that there was an effort here, on the part of your group, perhaps to be inflammatory for the sake of being inflammatory. Furthermore, he is suggesting that this type of behavior might not win new converts to your cause. How would you respond to Mr. Grant?

I think that it’s absolutely deplorable that he thinks there was a concerted effort to rile people up. We were expressing our freedom of speech. We were a few friends hanging out. This is academia; this is New York City. In the back of our minds, did we know that people might be mad? Yes, but that’s just the liberal bias you’re going to get with academia in general. We never went in to start confrontation. We were actually talking about final exams and such when we were attacked. So we didn’t go there to start a problem; we were just exercising our right to free speech. The real issue, to me, is that we were kicked out for exercising free of speech. So I disagree with [Tyler Grant’s] assessment.

Would you be in favor of laws that prevent discrimination from businesses for serving people they disagree with politically or do you respect the right of a business to serve whomever they like and potentially not serve someone they disagree with politically?

That’s a very tough question. Actually, I have to think about it a little more before I give a full answer, but one of my biggest issues is that we had already patronized them when we were kicked out. We already bought products. So I think you need to look into whether you have the right into denying service or discriminating based on people’s beliefs after they’ve already been served.

Actually, I want to see how the Supreme Court rules in this case in Colorado and a business has the right to kick people out of the store for simply disagreeing with them. I see both sides here. I don’t believe you should be discriminated against because of your sexual orientation, but I do also see the side of the owner of the business and his freedom to practice his religious belief. So I’m a bit torn on this issue. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say there should be a law against it. I would need to look more into the constitutional basis of this issue.

Do you see this event as potentially getting you more involved in politics? I know New York City tends to be a difficult place to be conservative. Do you see this as an event that might encourage you to become more involved in Republican Party politics?

My overall goal is to get an open dialogue to get people’s speech accepted, and some of my more liberal friends agree with me on this in the fact that we need to have a political conversation in this country. So I am going to be continuously involved in fights for free speech for everybody: conservatives, liberals, libertarians — everybody. Because that’s your God-given right as an American, to express that. So I am going to be involved, but I am not going to be hyper-partisan.

I’m not going to claim that “all liberals are evil” or something. Ninety percent of them are good people who listen and have a polite debate with you. But we need to strip the power from the loudest radical voices, and we need to start to work together and talk to each other about how we reach a middle ground. You might hate the [Make America Great Again] hat, but let’s talk about why you hate the hat. Don’t call us a Nazi, don’t call us a fascist, let’s talk about the policies. Then we’ll try to work out some middle-ground: “Hey we disagree here, maybe we can agree here.” Let’s work to create a better America rather than leave it divided by suppressing each other’s right to express an opinion.

Would you consider going back to that coffee shop as a customer after your experience?

Yes, I absolutely would. If we don’t go back, it would allow them to win by allowing them to prohibit people who hold conservative values from coming there. Some of the members of that shop would actually like us to come back and have an open dialogue about politics. In fact, when they tried to kick me out and I stayed, it was still hostile in there. But a few people did talk to me, and we talked about politics. We were discussing social choice, and we were just going back and forth; it was a great conversation. I would gladly go into that coffee shop and talk politics with anyone, but I’d also like to talk about anything with anyone in there. Just because we have different political opinions doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the football game or finals week. I want to be able to converse with people and respect people so long as they respect me. If they can respect me, then I will be respectful of them too.

Thank you very much for joining us this afternoon, Aaron.

Thanks for having me.

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief at Merion West. With a background in journalism and media criticism, he has contributed to newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The News & Observer, as well as online outlets including Quillette and The Hill. Erich has also spoken at conferences and events on issues related to gangs, crime, and policing. He studied political science at Yale University.

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