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COLUMN: The University of Michigan must allow Richard Spencer to speak on campus


At 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 24, the University of Michigan must provide an answer to whether it will permit white supremacist Richard Spencer to speak on its campus or risk a federal lawsuit.

U-M cannot say no. It must allow Spencer to speak.

With mounting pressure from individual students, student groups, faculty and staff of the university, if U-M President Mark Schlissel says no, it would trigger a lawsuit we've seen multiple times.

Spencer has already won a lawsuit against Auburn University in Alabama after it denied him permission to speak on campus. Ohio State University and Michigan State University are currently fighting lawsuits against Spencer — he will likely win both.

At this point, it's not about some grand ideal of upholding the First Amendment and all that jingoism I've said before. It's about not setting legal precedent.

U-M has a history of fighting for its policies all the way to the Supreme Court. U-M has fought two Supreme Court cases — losing one and winning the other. Both set major legal precedent for public university policy.

This isn't my first time saying this — Spencer's views are disgusting, vile and racist. But it is protected free speech. He may advocate for an ethno-state and the superiority of white people, but he has never advocated physical violence or encouraged people to be violent. 

Robert Sedler, a constitutional law professor at Wayne State University, said court precedent for speech on public university campuses must show neutrality toward content, even if there is a threat of violence. As long as a public university receives advanced notice, it cannot stop a speaker.

In Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the Supreme Court said in clear, distinct language that unless speech is, "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action" it cannot be banned. 

The Supreme Court isn't going to reverse course any time soon. The best case scenario is the court doesn't hear the case. The worst case scenario is the court hear the case and sets legal precedent in favor of the First Amendment.

Presently, universities have the power to separate speakers from their opposition, put them in the building of their choice and create content neutral policy, such as only permitting a speaker if a student invites them.

From the outside, these seem like reasonable responses to controversial speakers and trying to keep the peace. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court would most likely view these as an obstacle to free speech and strike them down.

If universities cannot make it so a speaker has to be invited to campus, Spencer has free roam over every campus in America. This is something he wants. He wants to be able to push and troll campuses for national attention.

If universities cannot choose how far a speaker's supporters and protesters must be from each other, the effects could be like what we've seen at UC Berkley or Charlottesville. If he or his supporters get hurt, they get to play the victim card and justify themselves.

If universities cannot choose what building the speech takes place in, Spencer could choose a building in the heart of campus. His exit from campus would take longer, cost more security and increase the chance of violence. 

As Spencer and his supporters try to leave a campus, the likelihood for clashes increases exponentially.

U-M has no legal standing to deny Spencer his right to speak. U.S. court precedent is clear — he can speak.

Not fighting Spencer might be the only way to fight him. Letting him speak, and not giving him the attention he craves, might be the best way to shut him down.

This is about more than standing by your students and supporting diversity and inclusion.

This is about not make a bad situation worse.

Please, U-M just let him speak.