Today’s decision by the University of Florida to ban rental of space for an event by white supremacist Robert Spencer is a threat to free speech on campus, and the reasoning behind it poses a danger to a wide range of speech.
University of Florida president W. Kent Fuchs justified his decision based on “continued calls online and in social media for similar violence in Gainesville such as those decreeing: ‘The Next Battlefield is in Florida.’” The term “battlefield” is a common metaphor used for non-violent action, not necessarily a threat. And I can only find usage of this phrase on a couple of obscure right-wing message boards, not any left-wing sites that could pose a threat to the event.
According to President Fuchs, “the University of Florida remains unwaveringly dedicated to free speech and the spirit of public discourse,” which is what administrators always say while they’re repressing free speech. Fuchs wrote, “However, the First Amendment does not require a public institution to risk imminent violence to students and others.” Yes, it does. There is no such thing as a risk-free college or a risk-free world. Universities hold large sporting events all the time, even though sports have nothing to do with the core mission of a university and a sporting event could lead (and does lead) to fights on occasion from drunken idiots. Universities allow fraternities to have parties despite the clear and very real risk of rape, overdoses, and accidental death. Risk is everywhere. By the logic of risk management, any controversial speech must be banned because it might spark some kind of violence. And that logic goes far beyond speakers trying to rent a space on campus.
Any controversial student or professor must also be banned from campus if anyone makes a threat of violence. So, if white supremacists threaten an anti-racist professor, that professor must be banned from campus, along with anyone who defends them It’s time to put a halt to the heckler’s veto. When universities ban speakers because of threats, they are encouraging more threats, and putting the campus in greater danger. Of course, campuses do need to respond to a direct targeted threat (although cancellation is not always the right response). But there appears to be no such threat here, only a vague risk assessment. Universities should be committed to free speech as a core value, not risk management.
The use of fear of violence to justify censorship is wrong. It’s also a vile smear against anti-racist protesters. Administrators are saying that leftists are so violent and dangerous that speakers who upset them must be permanently banned from campus.
Those on the left who cynically cheer a university for banning a controversial speaker on the grounds of a “risk” of violence should be aware that the logic of risk management threatens the free speech of everyone. Any leftist speaker is just one imagined violent protest away from being banned, too.