I have never been more proud of the University of Michigan than I am today, because it showed last night that it believes that our Constitution is stronger than our enemies.
In a rare public meeting, the regents voted not to forbid Richard Spencer, a man who is essentially a Nazi, from speaking on campus. Trustee Mark Bernstein was the most eloquent in explaining why. “The only thing worse than Richard Spencer being on our campus is stopping him from being on campus,” he said. Bernstein knew that if the university failed to live up to America’s bedrock values of free speech and free expression, it would play right into Spencer’s hands.
Now there is nothing socially redeeming about Spencer, a man who claims to have coined the term alt-right. He is an unabashed white supremacist who has called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” in this country. He is an enthusiastic supporter of legal abortion, because he thinks it can help control the black population. He gave the Hitler salute and quoted from Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda in the original German to celebrate Donald Trump’s victory last year.
Spencer also led the infamous torch-lit “blood and soil” parade in Charlottesville, Virginia that was followed by violence earlier this year. Other universities, including Michigan State and Ohio State, have banned him from speaking, and he is suing them.
My guess is that Spencer and his followers would like nothing better than to incite violence on the Ann Arbor campus; that’s what the Nazis did in Germany. If he does speak on campus, it will cost the university huge sums in additional security costs.
But that’s a price we must pay.
Bernstein, who himself is Jewish, quoted Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of the biggest Nazi war criminals, who called free speech “the fixed star in our constitutional constellation.”
"Jackson knew, as we must teach, that a government with the power to discriminate on the basis of viewpoint will use that power to censor views it doesn’t like,” the trustee said.
In other words, today Spencer, tomorrow perhaps Bernie Sanders. When I talked with him after the event, Bernstein expressed compassion for those frightened students who see the campus as their home, and want to feel safe there.
But he told me that is a risk we must take for freedom, especially now.
“Look at our government today, with its totalitarian impulses. With a President who laments that the media ‘can say whatever it wants.’ Who vilifies and targets journalists it does not like. We must ask ourselves what speech, exactly, will this government suppress?”
But beyond the First Amendment, there is a very practical reason why not banning Spencer was the pragmatic thing to do. All the university has done is to agree to negotiate about whether to allow him to rent space to speak on campus.
This, President Mark Schlissel noted, will allow the university to “impose limits on (the) time, space and manner,” of his speech, for security and safety reasons. Had Spencer sued and won, the University might well have lost that control.
Spencer didn’t win last night. The University of Michigan showed it believes that it, and the Constitution, are stronger than a few Nazi wannabes, and we should all be very proud.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.