Letter to the editor: Robert Spencer's views cause concern
I am writing in response to the article on the speaker Robert Spencer, invited to campus on May 1.
I share the concerns expressed for free expression even by those whose views I might find abhorrent or discriminatory. I am a strong supporter of the First Amendment, and, though I'm not a legal expert, it seems that the university may have little basis for barring the speaker. Also, since Mr. Spencer regularly portrays himself as a righteous victim of thought-policing I am wary of giving him any more ammunition for this position.
However, First Amendment protections are not absolute and citing them should not be the end of the debate, but the beginning. I wish to raise several additional issues that I think all students administrators and faculty should consider.
The speaker, Mr. Spencer is currently barred from the U.K. by a judgment from the Home Office, on the grounds that he expresses views that "foster hatred which might lead to inter-community violence." UB is responsible for the safety of all students, and this is a warning by a government agency that the University would do well to take to heart. At the time of the ban, Mr. Spencer was attempting to travel to a rally put on by the far-right street-protest group, the English Defense League, whose members have been convicted of assault on Muslims and attacks on mosques.
Mr. Spencer inspiring violence with his words is not a hypothetical situation. Mr. Spencer views were quoted over fifty times in a manifesto by Anders Behring Breivik who perpetrated the largest mass murder in recent European history, killing 77 people in Norway. Breivik also claimed that Robert Spencer "would be an excellent choice for a Nobel Prize."
Mr. Spencer's speech has real consequences of violence and intimidation for religious minorities. Spencer is the pseudo-academic face of a movement whose goals are explicitly violent, discriminatory, and anti-democratic. He is a founder of Stop Islamization of America, which is listed as a hate group by both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. This group promotes a paranoid vision of a world where Muslims are trying to take over the US and institute Islamic law. Despite its absurdity, this paranoia serves to dehumanize Muslims, calls them savages, and mobilizes supporters against them, much as Nazi propaganda did towards Jews in the 1930s.
Mr. Spencer and members of his organization do not come to present academic findings or express political views in good faith. They are not interested in a debate on the facts. They come as part of a strategic move by far-right forces to whip up public sentiment against minorities by appealing to stereotypes and caricatures. Members of religious and ethnic minorities, as well as those familiar with recent history, do not have to be told where this leads.
This violence and intimidation is not abstract or distant, either. Just a few days ago, on Tuesday, the 18th, two students wearing hijabs had flyers for this event thrown in their face by members of the Young Americans for Freedom. This was reported to campus police and a complaint was filed, but to my knowledge no additional investigation has taken place.
Clearly, the administration of UB understands that speech is limited and contingent on circumstance. The UB handbook currently restricts protests to a few spaces on campus and regulates speech that might "interfere with the mission" of the University. Despite your assurance that free speech also extends to the freedom "to engage in protest," the actual behavior of the University is not reassuring on this. Protesters at recent events have been forcibly removed by campus police, and just a few years ago in 2013, the UB police arresteda professor for swearing against a anti-abortion demonstrator. The University's role, including the operation of its police force, cannot be entirely neutral in deciding when and where someone may speak and what sort of platform they are accorded.
Finally, I would call your attention to recent incidents at the University of Washington and University of California, Berkeley, where violent conflicts have broken out between supporters of similar hate-groups and their opponents. In Seattle, this January, one protester was shot on campus by an armed supporter of Milo Yiannopolous. At UC Berkeley dozens were injured in clashes between right-wing forces and anti-fascists, when Mr. Yiannopolous was scheduled to speak. The far right is targeting public universities in an attempt to provoke such outbreaks of violence.
I would urge the administration, faculty, and student body to use their freedom of speech to condemn Robert Spencer's noxious views in the strongest terms possible and to investigate the use of any public money or resources, including student fees, going to support or advertise his talk. Despite talk of free-speech, the administration cannot remain entirely neutral on issues that threaten the safety of minority students and the campus at large.
Junior English and philosophy major