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SPLC president to Congress: Universities must protect free speech but also speak out for other democratic values

SPLC President Richard Cohen testified today before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary about the obligation of universities to uphold not only the First Amendment rights of controversial speakers but to speak out against speech that threatens our democratic values. 

He delivered the following oral remarks to the committee chaired by Sen. Chuck Grassley, in addition to written testimony:

Thank you, Senator Grassley.

It’s an honor to appear before the committee this morning, particularly with my fellow panelists.

I think we all agree on certain fundamental points.

The First Amendment is of paramount importance, particularly at our institutions of higher learning.

Yet, in recent months, the commitment of our universities to the First Amendment has been tested as speakers from a newly energized white nationalist movement have been making the rounds on college campuses.

These speakers – particularly Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos – have drawn protests, not simply from students, but from loosely organized, violence-prone outside groups of so-called anti-fascists.

The presence of these anti-fascist groups has led to an equal, yet opposite reaction – the formation of groups dedicated to fighting the anti-fascists.

As what happened at Berkeley demonstrates, it’s a combustible situation.

This April, Richard Spencer was scheduled to speak at Auburn University, 50 miles from our office in Montgomery.

Spencer is a leading white nationalist figure who popularized the term “alt-right.”

At a highly publicized white nationalist rally shortly after the presidential election, Spencer gave a speech ending with “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory,” as many in the audience sieg heiled.

The event catapulted him to national prominence.

In his first college speech following his November rally, Spencer stated that “America … belongs to white men….We own it.”

In advance of Spencer’s scheduled appearance at Auburn, we checked to ensure that the university police knew about the problems that other universities had recently faced when controversial speakers came to town.

We also suggested to university administrators and to the college club we sponsor at Auburn that they hold an alternative event to highlight their commitment to inclusion and to our nation’s democratic values.

We have no objection, of course, to peaceful student protests. 

But we’d suggest that students not give racist speakers an audience.

And we certainly don’t want students to do anything that would allow racist speakers to portray themselves as First Amendment martyrs.

Auburn initially issued a statement making it clear that it deplored Spencer’s views.

And that was the right thing to do.

The First Amendment doesn't require public universities to be neutral when racist speakers come to town. They can and should take a position.

But then Auburn canceled the speech out of fear that Spencer’s presence would provoke violence.

And that was the wrong thing to do because the university was perfectly capable of providing security for the event.

The university lost the case in court and handed Spencer a victory in the process, an outcome that allows a man whose views are inimical to our founding principles to parade around as a First Amendment hero.

Given the climate in our country, I worry that we’ll see more violent confrontations on college campuses when school starts this fall.

As Rep. Mark Sanford recently put it, the rhetoric surrounding the presidential campaign has “unearthed some demons.”

Since the election, we’ve documented nearly 200 incidents of racist flyers being distributed on college campuses.

We’ve also detected a surge in bias-related acts of harassment, intimidation and violence in schools and communities across the country.

This Sunday, Richard Spencer is scheduled to speak at a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, something that is almost sacrilegious.

He’ll be joined by the founder of one of the white nationalist groups that's been recruiting on college campuses.

Their First Amendment rights must be protected.

But we must not ignore the increase in white nationalist activity around the country and on our college campuses.

We need to fight speech that threatens our nation’s democratic values with speech that upholds them.

It’s an obligation that university officials have and one that everyone in public life, starting with the president, has as well.

Thank you.