By: Grant Goetcheus
While universities have long been the setting of civil discourse and open discussion about societal issues there are some limitations and they have come into full view recently after a controversial figure tried to speak at the Ohio State University.
Knowmyrights.org explains that private universities, such as the University of Findlay, have the legal right to define its own restrictions on free speech. OSU is a state school so it is funded with tax dollars which means it adheres to state and federal mandates. However it recently put its foot down when Richard Spencer, a white nationalist, tried to book an engagement on OSU’s campus.
Diana Montague, Ph.D. in American culture studies with specialization in popular culture at the University of Findlay says private institutions have more control over what goes on in their property.
“Public institutions are more open, and since they are partially funded by the government are obliged to offer a content-neutral forum for free speech for those who want to add to the ‘marketplace of ideas’,” Montague said. “That said, if a public institution, whose primary purpose is to educate and keep safe its students, feels that the safety of its students may be in danger because of speech, they may claim that the safety of students is paramount and they have reason to fear the speech may incur violence toward those students.”
This is exactly what caused OSU to deny the request. According to OSU’s student newspaper, The Lantern, “The request was denied after the University determined that it is not possible to accommodate this request without substantial risk to public safety.”
Being denied to speak at the University lead Spencer to file a lawsuit against Ohio State for denying his right of speech.
The Washington Post reported earlier this week that “the University of Michigan and the University of Cincinnati are considering requests from the white-nationalist National Policy Institute to allow Richard Spencer to speak on campus.” UC recently released a video ahead of Spencer’s visit. The video features the message #WeChooseLove as various people talk about equality, openness, and fairness.
“Can an institution predict imminent lawless action before the speech even takes place? No, but if precedent has been set that a particular speaker has been the catalyst for violence, a court may (or may not) recognize that as a compelling reason to allow an institution to deny a speaker a platform,” Montague said.
Proof of the harm Spencer’s gatherings can cause made the news after giving a speech at the University of Florida on Thursday, Oct. 19. His speech was about his views and opinions about race and race relations. As Spencer is a white nationalist, during his speech there were people protesting against his ideas and his message.
According to the Florida Today newspaper, “Loud chants of “Say it loud! Say it clear! Nazis are not welcome here!” greeted Spencer when he took the stage at the University of Florida.”
CNN reported it was his first planned speech on a college campus since the August incident after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“Can a message be too extreme? As long as it doesn’t fall under some of the categories that aren’t protected (e.g. obscenity, fighting words, inciting imminent lawless action) it is protected by the First Amendment,” Montague said. “The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect unpopular speech, even extreme speech. The idea is to allow many ideas into the marketplace of ideas and let people decide for themselves which ideas are valid/truthful and which are not. So the answer to combatting extreme speech would be to counter it with more speech with another perspective, not less speech.”
Spencer is also in the midst of a lawsuit against Michigan State claiming that his first amendment rights have been violated.