ACLU, Universities should re-evaluate strict adherence to ‘free speech’4 min read
March 29, 2018
It’s hard to imagine again the America of my generation’s youth, when Obama was first elected and everyone and their mother could proclaim they were officially racially color blind.
Racism was simple back then. The Holocaust happened and was terrible, people of all colors were created equal, and we could all sing “I love the mountains” together in music class while we played games together underneath parachutes in gym.
By high school, everyone had pretty much already decided that explicit racism was bad. My activist friends and I weren’t gearing up to prove that people of color were equal, we were getting ready to expose the subtleties and depth of American racism, a country founded in slavery and genocide.
Then came 2017, and white supremacy stormed the White House.
Wait, what? Didn’t we put white supremacy to bed under the parachutes in gym class? Aren’t we here in college to learn how to be informed citizens and collectively innovate and create, not have debates on whether or not the Civil War was about slavery or if the Holocaust really happened?
According to the American Civil Liberties Union and colleges across the country, the answer to those questions is a resounding no, no—but yes to the last part.
Not only are the quintessential legal defender of human rights and the arbiters of higher education at a loss to condemn white supremacy, but they actively support it. The ACLU used time and resources to sue the city of Charlottesville for denying white supremacists a permit to host their Unite the Right rally—the rally of tiki torch carrying new wave white supremacists that resulted in the death of one counter-protester. Afterwards, the University of Florida rewarded rally organizer and leader of the alt-right Richard Spencer with the opportunity to speak on their campus, an event which the university spent $500,000 on security for. All of this, of course, was done in the name of freedom of speech.
The need to distance ourselves from reckless adherence to the abstract principle of free speech is more than just a moral one: the free speech justification for aiding and abetting white supremacists is riddled with logical contradictions and intentional obtuseness.
As professor at the University of Chicago School of Law Laura Weinrib argues in her article for the LA Times, the ACLU’s policy on free speech was not always as ideological as it is now. In the 1930s, the ACLU released a pamphlet explaining that its decision to defend Nazi speech was tactical, and would ultimately strengthen defense for other cases regarding labor movements and picketing. The decision to defend Nazi speech was carefully weighed against the power of progressives at the time and the possibility of America succumbing to fascism.
But now in 2018, when we have a populist demagogue in the White House, neo-Nazis-in-everything-but-name like Steve Bannon having occupied high level positions, and white supremacist groups making unprecedented pushes into the public sphere, the balance has clearly shifted in the direction of fascism, and the ACLU’s defence of Nazi speech has become antithetical to its mission of social justice.
As for public universities, it is time to stop hosting Nazis like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos—not because we simply “don’t like” what they have to say, but because white supremacy is ahistorical, pseudoscientific, and as such has no place in an establishment of higher learning. And we don’t like what they have to say.
The standard argument that limiting free speech is a slippery slope of government censorship doesn’t apply here. Other than the fact that “slippery slope” is a rhetorical fallacy, there is a clear, conscionable difference between a political club and a white supremacist group that denies the Holocaust. Any person of reason and good faith could determine the difference, and I would trust that our universities are being run by people of reason and good faith.
It is time for legal defenders of civil rights and institutions of higher learning to put aside their obtuse adherence to ambiguous, abstract concepts like freedom of speech. Response to fascism will always be a careful balance of restraint and appeasement, and now, in our universities and our legal system, is the time to restrain.