Opinion

Universities Must Challenge Richard Spencer's 'Right' to Incite a Race War in America

When Richard Spencer speaks on campus, as he did in Florida, we legitimize his foul, fraudulent 'scholarship'. He's manipulating America academia - and we must fight back

White nationalist Richard Spencer gives remarks after a white nationalist rally was declared an unlawful assembly on Saturday Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Va
White nationalist Richard Spencer gives remarks after a white nationalist rally was declared an unlawful assembly on Saturday Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Va Shaban Athuman/AP

When University of Florida president Kent Fuchs made a statement on August 16, cancelling the visit by white supremacist Richard Spencer, it was on the mark. Events in Charlottesville, Virginia, together with warnings of a "battlefield" in Gainesville, provided ample reason to halt the event. Fuchs was also right to emphasize that personally, he finds Spencer’s rhetoric "repugnant and counter to everything this nation stands for."

But though safety issues - and not Spencer’s ideas - comprised the reason for the cancellation, Spencer considered a lawsuit, arguing that UF used safety as a pretext to limit free speech. In a similar case this year, Auburn University allowed Spencer to speak rather than face a court battle.

But this evening, Richard Spencer will be speaking at UF, after the university administrators decided the threat of legal action was too grave, and because, as a public institution, it must uphold the principles of free speech.  

Florida Highway Patrol officers stand outside the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts ahead of Thursday's scheduled speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer on October 18, 2017 in Gainesville, Florida
JOE RAEDLE/AFP

Can the university ban speakers based on speech? Ostensibly the answer is no, but the issue is worth debating afresh now, in the current political climate.

The University of Florida does not practice censorship. It hosts hundreds of academic speakers each year. They discuss issues ranging from boycotts against Israel to responses to climate change, and they do not find universal consensus among faculty and students.

But all academic speakers honor an unspoken arrangement. Whatever their arguments, they adhere to the scholarly practice of empirical study. Their conclusions have bases in demonstrable fact. They also conduct themselves accordingly, engaging in learned debate with their listeners.

I mention this because Spencer and his colleagues style themselves as scholars. His "National Policy Institute" - under whose standard he speaks -carries the trappings of a legitimate think-tank. Its website has tabs for research, a biannual journal, and news of academic-style conferences.

But Spencer and his collaborators are frauds.

Our university mission includes empirical research that expands the boundaries of knowledge for all human beings. Spencer and his institute spin fantasies of racial hierarchies and paranoid conspiracy theories. African-Americans, according to one National Policy Institute article, are racially predetermined to destructive behavior. Jews, says another, are "the razor’s edge...cutting into the heart of our nation."

A flier on the campus of the University of Florida, the day before a speech by Richard Spencer, an avowed white nationalist and spokesperson for the so-called alt-right movement. October 18, 2017
SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS

It is not simply the arguments; it is the counterfeit scholarship on which they are based. The articles cite fraudulent sources and contain numerous statements that are demonstrably fabricated. Spencer wants to speak here because a research university venue would give him academic bona fides. He aims to burnish his reputation at the expense of ours.

This is not all. Spencer and his ilk have been accused of hate speech, but his actual speeches, including his keynote after the 2016 election (the "Heil Trump" speech), show that he is not simply theorizing, but inciting violence.

He calls for a race war to be launched by "the children of the sun," as he calls whites, who possess superior "blood in our veins." And he is insistent. "We demand," he declares "to live in the world that we imagine." Reminiscent of Adolf Hitler, for whom ethnic struggle was a zero-sum contest of genocidal aggression, he proclaims: "For us, it is conquer or die."

Meanwhile, he attacks his critics as shills who promote white destruction. Meticulous investigative journalism is thus fake news designed to bamboozle all but the initiated. Universities are another avenue of cultural swindle, helping to perpetuate what Spencer argues is "a sick and disgusting society."

White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia, on the eve of a planned Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. August 11, 2017
STRINGER/REUTERS

Even without the torches, Confederate flags and steel helmets, we can say that Spencer’s visit is hardly in the spirit of genuine academic debate.

Is Spencer’s speech protected on a university campus? An untenured professor spouting his rubbish would be fired, not owing to the university’s rejection of free speech, but because falsified nonsense fraudulently passed off as scholarship, even absent the violent implications, is contrary to the mission of an accredited university.

We should not allow the Richard Spencers of the world to use us, and we should not be a party to our own debasement, without a challenge.

If such people want to use our campus as a backdrop, we should force them to argue their right to do so in court so that their pretenses will be examined in the light of day. We will thereby make it clear for everyone that their mission and ours should never cross paths. 

Norman J.W. Goda is the Norman and Irma Braman Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Florida and is the author or editor of nine books.

An earlier version of this text was originally published in the Alligator, the University of Florida's student newspaper.