We must protect speech, even ‘hate’ speech

Alabamians should be quite proud of the substantial progress that our state has made on the issue of racism.

Last Tuesday night, a speech was given at Auburn University by a man who proclaims to be “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States.”

His speech was called ignorant, extremist, and racist, and the tension it created caused the talk to be covered by national and even international media. It was cancelled by school administrators, a federal court weighed-in, an order was issued, and dueling demonstrations ensued. There were even a couple of nasty fist fights.

But if that same speech would have been delivered six decades ago, at the same location, it would have been called … Tuesday night.

Nobody would have noticed. Campus life would have moved along as if nothing controversial was being spoken inside that nondescript university building, and not a single reporter would have wasted their time covering something so commonplace as a little-known racist saying racists things somewhere in Alabama.

That’s undeniable progress, so good on you, Heart of Dixie.

On the other hand, the fact that so many people did notice – and moreover, that they responded so poorly – does present the millennial generation with an entirely different yet equally insidious threat to their freedoms: censorship.

Here’s how it went down: earlier this month Auburn University announced that it was cancelling a speech scheduled to be delivered on campus by Richard Spencer, the aforementioned self-appointed champion of “people of European descent.”

“Auburn canceled the Richard Spencer event scheduled for Tuesday evening based on legitimate concerns and credible evidence that it will jeopardize the safety of students, faculty, staff and visitors,” the university said in a statement.

What a terrible lesson on the “heckler’s veto” to teach its students.

The university could have more honestly said, “Auburn canceled the First Amendment for Tuesday evening based on legitimate concerns and credible evidence that it will jeopardize the feelings of a few hecklers.”

Is our access to information – regardless of how controversial it may be – to be held hostage to someone’s feelings?

We’re seeing the same process unfold with alarming frequency across the nation: a speaker is invited to give a talk on campus about something that someone decides is provocative – it could be an issue that’s clearly contentious like racism or something that’s fairly ordinary like comparative religion.

Neither the seriousness of the subject nor the qualifications or behavior of its presenter matter much, only that someone is offended, or triggered, or made to feel things other than happiness.

Students whine. Faculty encourage. Administrators surrender.

And speech is silenced.

Unpopular speakers may be chased away, but what’s left in their wake is a slightly weakened First Amendment, so who really loses?

Most people see Spencer’s ideas for what they are: racist retreads that have long since lost their traction with voters. Still, it’s understandable for decent people to want to keep him out or shout him down, but with each cancellation and every ill-mannered interruption, they sap the strength from their own rights.

Nowhere is this fact more eloquently explained than in the remarkable film, “A Man for all Seasons.”

In it, the family of Thomas More implores him to have a certain ruthless and ambitious man arrested because they fear the man will eventually engineer his downfall. More refuses, saying that until the man actually breaks the law, he must go free even if he were the Devil himself.

More’s son-in-law balks at the analogy, and says he’d chop down every law in England to get at the Devil.

“And when the last law was down,” More responds, “and the Devil turned on you … where would you hide … the laws all being flat? This country is planted with laws from coast to coast. Man’s laws, not God’s. And if you cut them down … do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”

More ends, “I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.”

So, yes, Auburn. We must give Richard Spencer the benefit of the First Amendment for our own freedom’s sake.

Besides, his speech was kind of boring, anyway.

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