Every day you read another story about a speaker on campus being shouted down. The shouters apparently believe shutting up someone is their freedom of speech.
It’s not entirely surprising they think this, considering recent polls suggest more than half of college students don’t believe “hate speech” is protected by the First Amendment (and “hate speech” ends up being anything they don’t want to hear).
But at least they have the excuse that they’re students, and still have much to learn. What do you do when those who run the campus don’t know any better?
That seems to be the case at the University of Florida, where white nationalist Richard Spencer will be speaking on October 19th. His group paid to rent a facility at UF. Many students want to know why the event can’t be canceled.
This led to a message from University President W. Kent Fuchs, who wrote “If you are like me, I expect you are surprised and even shocked to learn UF is required by law to allow Mr. Spencer to speak his racist views on our campus.”
In 1992 the Supreme Court declared local governments can’t charge more than nominal fees for the use of public places. Otherwise, you’d have what amounts to a “heckler’s veto”—the greater the opposition, the more the government could charge until the financial burden prevented a speech.
Fuchs is shocked? Doesn’t he understand how things work? As a Q&A page put up for the event by the University explains, “As a state entity, UF must allow the free expression of speech. We cannot prohibit groups or individuals from speaking in our public forums except for limited exceptions, which include safety and security.”
Shouldn’t Fuchs know that, rather than be surprised by it? (And why does the explanation from the university seem so grudging? Shouldn’t it be more like “as an institution of learning, we aren’t afraid of letting others speak, even those we vehemently oppose?”)
Of course, many would like to use the safety and security excuse to keep people like Spencer from speaking. There’s such a threat of violence surrounding the event -- Governor Rick Scott has actually declared a state of emergency due to the speech -- that there’s an estimated need for half a million dollars in security costs. Why not charge it to Spencer?
The courts, however, recognize this as an end run around the First Amendment. In “Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement” (1992) the Supreme Court declared local governments can’t charge more than nominal fees for the use of public places. Otherwise, you’d have what amounts to a “heckler’s veto”—the greater the opposition to a speaker, the more the government could charge until the financial burden prevented the speech.
It should be noted that this 25-year-old case was decided 5-4 with the liberals in the majority. Perhaps this is because the Justices back then were old enough to remember an age when it was the left’s speech that was often shut down. Today’s left on campus is so dominant perhaps they believe only their opponents will ever be silenced.
So Richard Spencer, a loathsome racist with very little following, will get to talk. It’s quite possible there’ll be huge protests, and perhaps even violence.
But after all the complaints, and threats, try to imagine a different scenario — one supported by W. Kent Fuchs, by the way, after he got over his shock. There’s an old hippie saying: “Suppose they gave a war and no one came.” Well, suppose Richard Spencer gave a speech and no one came.
There’d be no shouting. No physical harm. No need to pay so much for security. Just a little freedom of speech. Campuses might even get used to it.