The campus free speech struggles, and litigation

You may well not have heard of Mr Richard Spencer; at any rate I hadn’t, though I must admit I don’t think my life was the poorer for it. So, to introduce him to you, let me tell you that he is president of the National Policy Institute, an American white supremacist ‘think tank’. The reason why he is making an appearance in this blog post is because he has developed a habit of getting himself invited, or inviting himself, to universities to make speeches or take part in debates. His modus operandi appears to be that when these universities cancel his appearances, he sues them, claiming that his freedom of speech has been violated. Indeed he makes some money that way, as universities have been known to settle with him to escape his litigious attentions.

Let us not spend much time on Mr Spencer. This post has another dramatis persona, in the form of Mr Briscoe Cain. Mr Cain is a lawyer and a Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives. He is 32 years old, and I suspect he is on the look-out for higher things in the world of politics. He calls himself a conservative, and goodness knows what that actually means these days in the somewhat convoluted politics of the United States, but let’s say the label won’t please some students and others should he seek a university as a location for his oratory; which is what he has done.

Mr Cain appears to have been invited to address an audience at Texas Southern University (TSU). It is what is often referred to as a traditionally black university. Mr Cain was invited by a local chapter of the Federalist Society, an association that believes in the merits of ‘principles of limited government’, to deliver a speech on the campus of TSU. When the day came – and it was last week – a group of students from the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement objected to his rhetoric, on the somewhat complicated grounds that Mr Cain was known to oppose public funding of sex reassignment surgery. The university cancelled the event, claiming that his invitation had been irregular since the Federalist Society was not appropriately registered and recognised administratively by TSU.

So, Mr Cain is now proposing to sue TSU and its president and maybe some students. I suspect that the whole thing will become a topic of interest to radio talk show hosts and others wanting to work up a nice lather of indignation at this latest egregious violation of freedom of speech, maybe in between arguing the case for removing broadcasting licences from TV stations that are hostile to the current US administration. Let’s just say that Mr Cain won’t be deprived of support from various commentators.

But here is the problem. You and I might not be booking our seats to hear Mr Cain. But as far as I can tell, the good Texas Representative is not on the same level of unacceptability as Mr Spencer, for whom I would certainly be more than reluctant to provide any kind of platform. Briscoe Cain is just an attention-seeking conservative Republican, and while I might not like his outlook I strongly believe in a competitive political forum in which all legitimate views should be given a hearing. According to media reports, Mr Cain’s attempts to speak were drowned out by student chants of ‘you don’t get a platform here’.

Right now universities in the United States, and some in the United Kingdom, are being criticised for their failure to protect the right to free speech; and some students may sometimes appear to limit free speech to speeches that they agree with. This is something we must be vigilant about. Unpopular views must indeed sometimes receive special protection, so that we never slip into a society in which oppression becomes easier because we have all paved the way for it.

I have no particular affection for Briscoe Cain. But he should have been allowed to speak.

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6 Comments on “The campus free speech struggles, and litigation”

  1. paulmartin42 Says:

    My advice is to stand back and ignore the so-called problem. I think Bill Rogers calls it, for the case of classroom teaching, diplomatic blindness. If you stop and call out every minor infraction by Jemima then the low level distraction tactics will have worked. Clever teachers can discern the difference between simple attention seeking and Catalan type revolution.


  2. “Unpopular views must indeed sometimes receive special protection”; Mr Cain was not asking for special protection, but for the same right to address an audience who had invited him as everyone else.

    And we are all the poorer that he didn’t get it

  3. Vince Says:

    Isn’t this a question of numbers.
    When a big uni had less than 7000 those that followed a certain ‘ism could be accommodated as could those that held the diametrically opposing view. Now we have a public order issue. A bit like the Rag Week’s being killed by ohh soo correct denizens of the SU.


    • Speech, short of incitement to violence, by a speaker making an invited presentation to a meeting at which attendance is completely voluntary, *should not be* a public order issue. That’s the *whole* point

      • Vince Says:

        And I’m saying that in the past the numbers involved amounted to a klatch from the same segment of society, akin to having a labour party society at Harrow, or even scarcer Ampleforth. But with 10s of thousands in some institutions any large gathering is about crowd management.


        • Is crowd control really such an issue? Universities have been large for decades, and of course University societies should have access to halls large enough for the expected audience


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