Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Column: The "free speech" defense is coming back to haunt MSU administration

September 12, 2017

A white supremacist who calls for "peaceful ethnic cleansing" is suing MSU for violation of his First Amendment rights, and yet again, the racism and hate that makes so many on this campus feel uncomfortable and unsafe is no longer in focus. 

MSU vs. the National Policy Institute is now a debate about free speech.

It should be understood, punchable bigot and sentient meme Richard Spencer is a PR genius. His Duke-educated tactics make it difficult to give any legal basis to banning his appearance on MSU's campus. By arguing that his preferred form of ethnic cleansing avoids the need for "civil war and mass murder," it's tough to ban him on the grounds of inciting violence.

While it's easy to see how a gathering of belligerent, swastika-waving Nazis on a university campus might infringe on others' rights, Spencer prefers to call his harmless-sounding NPI "alt-right," which covers their neo-Nazi views in a more socially acceptable, hard-to-define blanket.

It's clearly risky for a university to take a hard-line stance against anyone's ideas. However, for a school that purports to care about its minority students, MSU should have no qualms about claiming the NPI's ideas have no place in society. What's the worst case scenario? A complete dismissal of Spencer's ideals is found unconstitutional, the white-power wacko and his on-campus supporters have their day to disgrace themselves, and MSU walks away looking like an uncompromising defender of students' physical and emotional safety?

Instead, by denying the NPI a place to speak without putting any substance in their rejection, not only are racists mad that their rights are being violated, but students like me are upset that MSU is too cowardly to denounce even the white power movement without putting a PR spin on it. 

What makes this even more complicated for the MSU administration is that, in the recent past, they have leaned on "free speech" as a way to avoid confronting blatant racism on their campus. Now, this weak, image-minded tactic is coming back to bite them as they struggle to explain why an NPI rally can be exempted from First Amendment protections, even as multiple other racist incidents were shrugged off using that very excuse.

When, in 2011, "no n---ers, please" was anonymously written on a dorm door whiteboard, Lou Anna K. Simon's lukewarm email rebuke made sure to note, "The University supports free speech" before saying the use of an explicitly racist term was only potential ethnic intimidation. 

Last year, when then pre-dental freshman Reyna Muck compared a black all-conference kicker to a gorilla, it seemed everyone on campus was able to call the disgusting Instagram post racist except the president. Simon's unfocused response referenced Halloween attire, drunken MSU-Michigan celebrations and the 2016 election, but mentioned the word "racism" and all other synonyms exactly zero times.

In the case of rejecting the NPI's request, Simon was more forceful, calling the NPI organizers "racist and divisive." Yet once again, the president felt it necessary to hedge her bets, taking two sentences to explain how much MSU cares about everyone's voices being heard.

This kind of talk might help Sparty's legal team sleep at night, but it is disrespectful to all of us non-Aryans on campus who don't see our proposed eradication as a harmless ideological battle. These are times when being brown means your grandma could be shot execution-style for going to Bible study, you could be preparing for morning prayer when your mosque gets bombed, or your entire race could be dismissed as rapists by the future President of the United States. If my university has the funds for top-tier legal representation, and some racist wants to say the school is violating their rights by unapologetically refusing to host their hate rally, that's a risk I'm willing to see them take. It means my school both talks and acts to distance itself from the type of rhetoric that suggests, with a winking eye and a few prettied-up words, that dead brown people are the only good brown people.

Free speech is, to me, the cornerstone of our democracy. Nobody, not even Richard Spencer, should be prevented from publicizing their views. Yet, for example, if I wanted to publish this column and my higher-ups at the State News refused, I wouldn't sue the publication, but rather find a new one. The time and effort that would go into a long legal battle would distract from what actually matters to me, which are the views and ideas I want to express. 

Similarly, if the right to express his views is actually what Spencer cares about, instead of trying to normalize his hate through legal intimidation, he'd simply find someone in the area willing to give him a platform and press on in the fight for a safer, whiter America.

Maybe Spencer should take a cue from noted "fraud and degenerate" Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., take to the streets, and actually participate in free speech through a non-violent protest down Grand River Avenue. But of course he won't do that. It's clearly easy enough to throw up the concept of free speech as a straw man to make sure your enemies tiptoe around you, afraid of being seen as un-American. MSU has taken this bait far too many times in the past, and unless Spartans see an unapologetic dismissal of everything Spencer stands for soon, it appears they've done it once again.

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