POINT: Pay for controversial speakers takes away from real needs

Sonali Seth | Daily Trojan

Reporters Tess Owen and Josh Marcus opined on Vice News on the double-edged sword of white supremacist Richard Spencer last year: “Richard Spencer has put American public universities in a legal quagmire: Allow him to speak, and face exorbitant security costs and the possibility of injuries or death. Or don’t let him come to campus, and risk a lawsuit and the prospect of paying a white supremacist directly in the form of a judgement or legal settlement.”

Well, it looks like the University of Cincinnati has tried a workaround: Let him come, but make him pay for security. The university’s requirement of Spencer to pay nearly $11,000 for security during his planned talk — what Spencer’s attorney Kyle Bristow called a discriminatory and unconstitutional “speech tax” — has now resulted in a federal lawsuit against the university. The university’s president, Neville Pinto, said that the security fee is merely part of standard policy.

“The university has historically charged security fees and costs for the rental of any of its facilities by an outside entity,” Pinto said in a press release. If that’s true, then Spencer’s argument that he was discriminated against is not grounded in facts. The bigger, more interesting question is whether requiring campus speakers to pay for their security at all threatens the values of free speech.

Yet, in the court system, Spencer has powerful First Amendment precedent on his side. The 1992 Supreme Court case Forsyth County, Ga. v. The Nationalist Movement determined that fees for permits for public demonstrations could not depend on the estimated cost of protecting public order — because that would tie the amount of the fee to the content of the speech. But given the hundreds of thousands that other public universities have spent on Spencer and other speakers, an $11,000 fee is more than reasonable — which is key, because the law in Forsyth failed partially because they did not have “narrowly drawn, reasonable and definite standards.”

Of course, Spencer could easily avoid a $11,000 fee; if his rhetoric were less hateful or his message less incendiary, he wouldn’t require so much security. But Spencer isn’t going to do that because he is, as The Atlantic put it, a “troll.” He seems to enjoy pushing the boundaries of what he can and can’t do, and raising up a firestorm in media and the court system when he is challenged.

Art by Lisa Kam | Daily Trojan

Those concerned about the spread of white nationalist ideologies — of which Spencer is the modern figurehead — should realize that engaging in this debate is playing into Spencer’s strategy.

If Spencer wins in court, he will speak at the University of Cincinnati — and force any university to pay for his security at other colleges, as well. It would allow him virtually unfettered access to platforms for college students, provided campus groups are willing to invite him. It would hamstring universities to scramble for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay security, potentially redirecting the funding from other necessary resources; the UC Berkeley paid $600,000 for a speech last year by conservative firebrand Ben Shapiro, while the University of Florida said they planned to spend $500,000 for Spencer’s speech. Amazingly, UC Berkeley spent just under $1 million — $1 million! — to host right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. As the budgets for public universities continue to shrink, a legal requirement to shell out hundreds of thousands to controversial speakers poses a serious threat to the core mission of public schools.

So proponents of the First Amendment who despise Spencer and his disgusting message find themselves right back where they started. Maybe this is a challenge for higher education institutions to strengthen themselves and reject white supremacy in every form — to hire more faculty and administrators of color, to hold steadfast their commitment to diversity requirements in core classes, to pour funding into need-based scholarships for first-generation students, to create more robust cultural centers and to work more deliberately to create inclusive campuses and foster cross-cultural understanding. At its core, that means a greater financial and administrative commitment to combating white nationalism.

It will take more purposeful effort. But it might create a more tolerant, inclusive and respectful future, not just on our college campuses, but also for the nation as a whole.

Sonali Seth is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.