In New York magazine, Jesse Singal pens a long defense of free speech on campus. It’s well done, and worth reading. Overall, I’d recommend it. But I must push back against the opening, which includes a rather misleading implication:
The existence of white nationalist Richard Spencer, and other bigoted far-right figures like him, poses a genuine challenge to public universities. Conservative student groups invite these sorts of figures to speak fairly often, and the courts have consistently held that public universities can’t really interfere with such events.
Having read this, you could be forgiven for thinking that “conservative student groups” have invited ”white nationalist Richard Spencer” to speak on campus, and that they have done so “fairly often.” This isn’t correct. Richard Spencer has indeed spoken on college campuses recently. But, invariably, he has invited himself.
Most recently, Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida. As the university itself notes:
No one at UF invited Richard Spencer. No one at UF is sponsoring this event and UF is not hosting Mr. Spencer.
Many conservative groups — and many non-conservative groups — argued that Spencer’s event was protected by the First Amendment. So, for that matter, has the Supreme Court. But that’s not the same as those groups inviting him. They didn’t.
Spencer has also spoken at Auburn. Did “conservative groups” invite him?
Nope. Per CNN, he invited himself:
[Spencer] said his Auburn appearance was sponsored by AltRight.com, a white nationalist site. He paid $700 to rent the hall and an additional fee for security from the Auburn Police Department, according to The Plainsman, an Auburn student newspaper.
Citing safety concerns, Auburn canceled the event Friday. Then, a federal judge granted Spencer’s request for an injunction, effectively ordering Auburn to host his speaking event as originally scheduled.
I have also seen it suggested that Spencer “spoke at UVA.” But this isn’t quite right, either. Spencer marched at UVA, which is in a public space. He wasn’t invited; he invited himself. Per the Washington Post:
The rally, led by Spencer, included 40 to 50 people and lasted five or 10 minutes, according to Lt. Stephen Upman, a spokesman for the Charlottesville Police Department. There were no incidents of disorder at the rally.
The group then left, boarding a tour bus at another location. Police followed to ensure that the group left the city. “Our department is conferring with city leadership and the commonwealth attorney’s office to determine what legal action may be taken in response to this event,” Upman said.
The march coincided with the university’s celebration of its bicentennial.
“It was a planned flash mob,” Spencer said in an interview Saturday night. “It was a great success. We’ve been planning this for a long time.”
Presumably, the counter-argument would be that Singal’s charge was leveled not at Spencer per se, but at “other bigoted far-right figures like him.” In some sense, this is fair: Sadly, conservative groups on campus have an increasing tendency to privilege trolling over substance — and it’s a tendency for which they should be called out. Nevertheless, there are very few people in the United States who are “like Richard Spencer,” and it would be a shame if anyone came away from Singal’s essay believing that the man has been invited or endorsed by the mainstream.