Cerabino: University of Florida fails history with neo-Nazi ban

If you care at all about government intrusion on free speech, you shouldn’t be applauding the University of Florida’s decision to ban white nationalist leader Richard Spencer from speaking on campus next month.

As American scholar Noam Chomsky once put it: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

University of Florida president W. Kent Fuchs’ first impulse to allow Spencer to speak was right.

“While this speaker’s views do not align with our values as an institution, we must follow the law, upholding the First Amendment not to discriminate based on content and provide access to a public space,” the college president said over the weekend.

But by Wednesday, Fuchs changed his mind and denied Spencer’s group, the National Policy Institute, the right to rent event space at the University next month.

“The decision was made after assessing potential risks with campus, community, state and federal law enforcement officials following violent clashes in Charlottesville, Va., and continued calls online and in social media for similar violence in Gainesville such as those decreeing: ‘The Next Battlefield is in Florida.’”

Citing safety is a dodge. There are potential risks of wearing a New York Jets jersey to a Miami Dolphins game.

And there are ways to address safety short of banning the campus event.

The bigger harm is that canceling Spencer’s speech sends the wrong message from an institution of higher learning that should be modeling Constitutional ideals for its students.

There was a time when universities were bastions of free speech. But they’ve increasingly becoming havens for young adults seeking a kind of hermetically sealed, imaginary America, one in which they have a right to “safe spaces” from bigots, sexists, racists, homophobes and others whose views fall outside the standard deviation of acceptable thought.

And by caving in here, the University of Florida is missing its chance to provide a valuable lesson of educational enrichment to its students.

There’s a long history in America of handling hate speech, one worth remembering at times like this.

Instead of cowering in fear, we should be recalling what became of the arrest of an Ohio leader of the Ku Klux Klan in 1964.

Clarence Brandenburg’s arrest and conviction went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was charged under an Ohio law that made it a crime to advocate violence “as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform.”

Brandenburg and 11 other Klansmen, wearing hoods and displaying firearms and Bibles, stood next to a burning cross while Brandenburg spoke to a local television reporter about taking back America from Jews and blacks.

“We’re not a revengent (sic) organization, but if our President, our Congress, our Supreme Court, continues to suppress the white, Caucasian race, it’s possible that there might have to be some revengeance (sic) taken.”

Those words led to Brandenberg’s conviction. He was fined $1,000 and sentenced to one to 10 years imprisonment.

But by 1969, that case bubbled up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which established that free speech could only be considered criminal if it is “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and if it is “likely to incite or produce such action.”

Brandenburg’s words were protected free speech, the court ruled.

“The line between what is permissible and not subject to control and what may be made impermissible and subject to regulation is the line between ideas and overt acts,” Justice William O. Douglas wrote.

It’s a lesson that has been continually reinforced.

In 1977, the Nationalist Socialist Party of America announced an intention to march in Nazi uniforms with swastikas through Skokie, Illinois, a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago where one in six residents were either Holocaust survivors or related to one.

Initially, the march permit was denied because of public safety concerns. It would be too disrespectful to the citizens of Skokie, who might react violently to it, local officials argued.

But the Illinois Supreme Court, backed by the U.S. Supreme Court, found that free-speech guarantees protected the march, including the parading of images as repugnant as the swastika, which was not in an of itself “fighting words,” the court ruled.

The march, once permitted by court order, never happened in Skokie. But the residents there set up a Holocaust remembrance museum the following year.

The lesson from these two events is that free speech, which is often ugly, messy and inconvenient, is inherently worth protecting, and only muzzled as a last resort — not just because it’s the easiest thing to do.

There’s another danger here with the University of Florida’s decision. What goes around, comes around.

The Trump Administration and his Justice Department have shown themselves to be no friends on free speech.

The president has called America’s free press “the enemies of the people.” And his administration has already floated ideas of loosening libel laws to go after journalists and using subpoena’s to force journalists to disclose confidential sources.

The “many sides” are to blame argument that President Trump used over last weekend’s Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, and his reverence for Confederate statues may very well be a prelude to equating groups like “Black Lives Matter” to Spencer’s neo-Nazis.

So what’s going to happen the next time an unarmed black man is killed by a police officer under suspicious circumstances and “Black Lives Matter” organizes a protest march? Will Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions step in, and call it the actions of a hate group?

Will the government ban the protest in the interest of public safety?

If that happens, I’d imagine a lot of University of Florida students would be outraged. They might even want to hold a rally to bemoan this violation of free speech rights being perpetrated by their government.

But once you lose your moral authority on the First Amendment, it won’t be easy getting it back.

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