Free Speech and Hate Speech: Where is the line?

FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2016, file photo, Richard Spencer, who leads a movement that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism, speaks at the Texas A&M University campus in College Station, Texas. (David J. Phillip, File/AP)

Last Thursday, October 19, prominent White Nationalist, Richard Spencer, spoke at the University of Florida in his first event at a college since the events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia in August. Spencer’s visit to the university was, as expected, a widely controversial event, that drew people from both sides of the political spectrum well before he even made his appearance. However, while people of course expected there to be controversy brought up surrounding Spencer’s political and social views, this occasion opened up the floor for another debate altogether: where do we draw the line regarding free speech and hate speech?   

When Richard Spencer first decided that he wanted to speak at the University of Florida, they turned him down due to claims that they feared the violence that would come with bringing Spencer to the school. However, since the University of Florida is a public university, they were unable to stop him from renting out the space on their campus by himself due to Spencer’s First Amendment right to free speech. Thus, despite the protests of many students and faculty, Spencer was allowed to speak anyway. While the president of the school did denounce Spencer’s views on White Nationalism, there was essentially nothing he could do to stop the appearance without ending up in a lawsuit that could go to the supreme court.

This inability for universities to take control is exactly what Spencer hopes to continue as he continues his tour of universities around the country. By dealing with public schools, the government is inevitably involved in and tied to the university, which allows the issue of First Amendment rights to come into play. If Spencer was attempting to appear at private universities, on the other hand, these institutions could turn him down without a second thought. While this decision may still cause an issue for the public university’s reputation, legally they would still be allowed the authority to make that decision. In planning out his upcoming tour of schools in this way, Spencer is almost guaranteeing that he will get his message across, but is continuing to cause tensions and controversy wherever he goes.

Obviously, Spencer’s appearance at the University of Florida, while it may not be a violation of his right to freedom of speech, has still caused many to question what the First Amendment allows. Free speech is a right and a luxury to all American citizens, and while this is of course a privilege that we need to protect, there are some aspects of it that do not seem like they should be protected. The kind of ideals that Richard Spencer spouts are clearly hate speech. The kind of “peaceful ethnic cleansing” that he has proposed for the U.S. is nothing more than a fancy way of spreading narrow-minded bigotry to the people of this country, many of whom are already racist to begin with. This kind of speech only serves to further divide our country and make it a more hateful place, without providing any redeeming effects.

Spencer is clearly only perpetuating animosity and hostility around the country, but does this mean we can take away his right to free speech? Spencer is not actively hurting anyone nor is he telling others to do so, thus he himself is not necessarily a threat to public safety. However, while he himself is not inciting violence his rhetoric obviously provokes it. Prior to the speech and subsequent rally in Gainesville, Florida Governor, Rick Scott, chose to declare a state of emergency in anticipation for the chaos that could and did ensue. In this, it shows that while Spencer himself is not actively a threat to safety, he inspires those who could be. But is this anticipation and prediction of brutality enough to justify the removal of someone’s First Amendment rights?

While I personally find it hard to justify allowing Spencer’s hateful rhetoric to continue, I understand that this is a complicated issue with no easy solution. I will not pretend that I have all the answers regarding where to draw the line on free speech. I know there is no answer that will be right for everyone, and that there is no hard and steadfast rule that will work for each and every case in which there is a potential violation of the First Amendment.

However, I also know that anyone that advises hate, discrimination, and bigotry as a way to cope with differences in our country is not a person worth listening to. While Richard Spencer may be allowed to continue his rampage through America’s public universities, spreading alt-right “ideals” and trying to strengthen the divide in the U.S., we don’t have to let him win. Do not feel defeated by his words, feel empowered to be better and do better at making this country a more accepting and diverse place, until one day there will be no more Richard Spencer’s left.


Emma Hungaski is the associate opinion editor  for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at emma.hungaski@uconn.edu.