Despite what Trump may propagate, the First Amendment is for everyone (thank you, Fourteenth Amendment). So those four freedoms —religion, assembly, press, and speech— all Americans can enjoy those, including white nationalists like Richard Spencer. Spencer has made headlines for his charming (despicable) ideas such as women not being worthy of the vote and being in favour of abortion in cases of “blacks and Hispanics” (“This can be something that can be a great boon for our people, our race,” said Spencer). His rhetoric is, unfortunately, not incredibly shocking or even unfamiliar in this political moment.
Trump uses his free speech to tear down anyone with ideas dissimilar to his, most recently informing the public that the PC days of “happy holidays” are over— “Guess what? We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” In a speech at the 2017 Values Voter Summit, he continued, “In America….we worship God”; I guess he missed the memo (a.k.a. the Constitution) that religious freedom actually means that anyone can choose to believe or not believe in any god. And sadly, the leader of the country, no matter how unqualified for the position, tends to set a national tone. So Richard Spencer wants to speak at the University of Cincinnati, and as it is a public university, he has the right to do so.
The university’s president eloquently acknowledged this right in a message to the college community:
“I write to inform you that the University of Cincinnati will uphold the First Amendment and allow Richard Spencer to speak on campus. We are still working to finalize the specific date and details of such a visit.
As a state institution, we must adhere to the foundational rights embedded in the First Amendment. That includes protecting speech of all types at all times—even, perhaps especially, words that are blatantly hateful or offensive. After all, we cannot silence those with whom we disagree without opening the doors to our own voices being silenced by those who disagree with us.
To be clear: Spencer, a white nationalist from the National Policy Institute, was not invited by any student, faculty or staff group affiliated with UC. In fact, countless members of our community have courageously pointed out that his ideology of hate and exclusion is antithetical to the core values of a civil society and an academic community. I stand with you in condemning dehumanizing views and racist practices.”
The UC president’s words echo those of Justice Holmes: “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought, not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
This reference is certainly not a novel one— it’s not only the title of our textbook, but it is so presently and constantly relevant. I feel like I can’t open a browser without encountering thought that I hate. And apart from living in a country that believes in free speech for everyone (in theory, at least), I truly do as an individual. But it can be so hard to know how to respond to it.
People yell back at aggressors, reply to their Tweets, create counter-protests against them, and Kendall hands them a Pepsi can. While some words are more effective and satisfying than others, I think well-placed silence can be powerful as well.
People notice silence, as the backlash from Trump’s Twitter silence on California’s wildfires exemplifies. What he says is offensive, but what he doesn’t say often indicates a lot about his values.
There is so much noise in the news right now, some silence could really cut through. I’d love to see Spencer enter a UC auditorium —after carefully coiffing his hair and preparing his speech—that is completely empty. I’m reminded of a saying I always used to hear when I was young: “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Our current political moment is nothing if not proof of the power of words. But when there is no one there to hear them? Spencer can go make a public indecency of himself, but if there’s no one there to hear what he has to say, his words suddenly matter a lot less.