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SPLC to Senate: Colleges must uphold free speech but can denounce racist speakers

SPLC President Richard Cohen testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions about the responsibility of universities to uphold the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the First Amendment.

Cohen delivered the following oral remarks to the committee chaired by Sen. Lamar Alexander, in addition to written testimony:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

It’s an honor to be here today, especially with such a distinguished group of fellow panelists.

After Charlottesville, this Congress recognized the “growing prevalence of … hate groups” in our country.

The current debate over free speech on college campuses is taking place against the backdrop of that growing prevalence – against the backdrop of a white nationalist movement that has been energized by Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and that is targeting our colleges and universities.

As Professor Stanger wrote in The New York Times piece after the incident at Middlebury, “Political life and discourse in the United States is at a boiling point, and nowhere is the reaction to that more heightened than on college campuses.”

Over 200 colleges have been targets of white supremacist, white nationalist recruitment efforts in recent months.

Prominent white nationalist figures have been on college speaking tours.

Their goal is to poke a stick in the eye of what they see as the bastions of liberal multiculturalism.

They want to spark a backlash so they can ennoble themselves and be able to parade around as First Amendment martyrs.

In the material that we distribute to students throughout the country, we urge students not to play into the hands of the Richard Spencers of the world.

Instead of attending their speeches and giving them the spectacles that they seek, we counsel students to hold alternative events that express our democratic values.

If students choose to protest, we urge them to do so peacefully.

Unfortunately, some students have had other ideas and have shouted down speakers.

In some cases, protests have turned violent as members of loose-knit coalitions of self-described anti-fascists have stormed college campuses.

Obviously, some college students do not have a clear understanding of the First Amendment.

Part of the problem is that as Professor Stanger pointed out in her article, we “have a civic education crisis in our country today,” particularly at the K-12 level.

Despite the challenges, I completely agree with Professors Strossen and Zimmer – that we must uphold our First Amendment values.

Just as students have a right to read whatever they want, they have a right to listen to whoever they want, however obnoxious or racist those speakers may be.

When universities hold their facilities open to outsiders, racists have a right to rent them on the same terms as anyone else.

We emphasize this point in the resources that we distribute across the country to campuses.

We also emphasize that it’s critical that the voices of college leadership be heard.

College presidents need not be neutral.

They can and should speak out in support of the First Amendment because it’s among our nation’s highest values.

Just as importantly, college presidents should speak out in support of the values of the 14th Amendment – to distance the university from racism – and to assure students who may feel threatened that the university is committed to maintaining an inclusive environment.

Indeed, every prominent person in public life, starting with the president, should speak out in support of these same values.

Unfortunately, as Professor Stanger pointed out in her New York Times piece, the president has not always demonstrated fidelity to the First Amendment.

He has suggested that the laws protecting freedom of speech and the press – laws that have constitutional underpinnings – should be changed.

He has encouraged his supporters at times to use violence against those who protest against him.

The implicit message is the silencing of dissent.

It is a message, according to Professor Stanger, that has not been lost on college students.

In its post-Charlottesville joint resolution, Congress urged the president to “speak out against hate groups that espouse racism, extremism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and White supremacy.”

Unfortunately, he has not done so consistently during his campaign or during his presidency.

Indeed, the truth is that President Trump has energized the white nationalist movement that is now targeting our colleges and universities.

For this reason, the president has a special responsibility to take the air out of the movement – a special responsibility to heed Congress’ recent call to “use all resources available” to the administration to “address the growing prevalence of … hate groups” in our country.