The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

Free speech not license to offend

FREE SPEECH isn't without limit. Or so the Supreme Court has ruled. In a unanimous Supreme Court decision, Schenck v. U.S. (1919), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that if he were to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater, he would create a harm far outweighing his right to free speech. Holmes created the clear and present danger test, which allows safety concerns to trump free speech rights.

This past week, Matt Hale, a white supremacist and leader of the World Church of the Creator, attempted to establish a chapter of his organization at Northwestern University. Hale has incited violence before and was involved in a scuffle at the school during a series of demonstrations in the last few weeks. Now Northwestern faces the dilemma of what to do.

If Northwestern does what is right, they won't tolerate this man's presence, despite his and the American Civil Liberties Union's pleas for free speech.

Not all speech is good, and Hale's words do hurt. Last July, Benjamin Smith, one of Hale's followers, went on a shooting rampage, for which he was immortalized as a martyr among Hale and his followers. For the World Church of the Creator, senseless murder is saintly behavior. Incidentally, Smith is now known as Brother Smith in the ranks of the World Church. In addition, Hale's initial demonstrations at Northwestern resulted in violence.

Hale clearly endorses disorderly, dangerous behavior, and his words incite violent hatred. "We struggle to win the Racial Holy War for our people's existence," he states on his Web site. Continuing, he observes: "We perhaps planted more seeds of our people's resurrection in [the past year] than in the 25 years previously." Their motto is "RAHOWA," which stands for Racial Holy War. War and resurrection imply violence on a grand scale.

"We long for our revolution," Hale adds in another essay. Hale probably doesn't sanction every act of violence. But he does understand their effect. Those who turn his words into acts are glorified. He knows that he can turn visceral hatred into violent battalions. Most people would disagree with Hale. That's why winning a race war is a gargantuan task. If Hale wants to win, then he needs violence to meet his tall order of white supremacy.

No legal precedent allows Hale this forum. Northwestern is a private institution, and there is no free speech guarantee in the private domain. So long as Hale is speaking on Northwestern's dime, it is at the administration's discretion whether it allows Hale to speak, or to what extent it allows him to speak. But even if Northwestern is worried about the slippery slope entailed in censoring Hale, it shouldn't. He has no Constitutional right to speech.

We must not forget that Northwestern is 10 to 12 percent black and also consists of a sizeable Jewish population. Allowing Hale to speak would alienate many of Northwestern's students. It also would endanger their safety. These students are paying tuition, and they have a right to be there. Hale doesn't. Violence tends to follow Hale. It's a disservice for Northwestern to compromise the security of those footing the bill.

Speech that is imposed and from which there is no escape is not protected. Hale has an in-your-face approach to speech. For many at Northwestern, escaping Hale's presence is impossible. If a student is not at liberty to move freely about his or her campus without being threatened, then Hale has no obvious right to speech.

How Northwestern handles this situation is important. Letting this man speak, when it doesn't have to and where there are clear harms, is an implicit endorsement of his views.

What it comes down to is whether there is any possible value in this man's speech. If the value isn't in the content, but in the mere act of his speech, then Northwestern is sacrificing its principles for an overly broad definition of free speech, a definition that ignores Constitutional precedent. If Joe Jerk shouts "Fire!" he incites violence. He causes a chain reaction that the courts recognize as precipitated by his speech. That's illegal. Similarly, if Hale can foresee his speech as impetus for violent reactions, then he has no free speech guarantee.

More importantly, Northwestern is enjoined by the demand for the security -- physically, mentally, emotionally and otherwise -- of its students. The school has no choice but to bar Hale, because he will do harm.

Fanatics think their goals noble. They also think them infallible. They see Truth. But Truth for fanatics has the added hurdle of the masses. The masses, though, aren't deluded by Hale's vision -- most of them see right through it. Hale must overcome that. And he won't stop short of violence.

(Jeffrey Eisenberg's column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily.)


Latest Podcast

Today, we sit down with both the president and treasurer of the Virginia women's club basketball team to discuss everything from making free throws to recent increased viewership in women's basketball.