Although white supremacy has been a part of America all along, the movement has been particularly energized in the past few years. White supremacists are lurking (or, at this point, out in the open) pretty much everywhere, but a new report from the Anti-Defamation League found that they’re conducting actual recruiting on college campuses. This is putting administrators in a tricky situation: It’s not really possible for colleges to crack down on white supremacist speech on campus as long as there’s no immediate threat to a student. That’s the tricky thing about the First Amendment — it protects some pretty despicable language.
The ADL tracked instances of banners, pamphlets, stickers, and flyers on campuses and found a steep increase. In the fall of 2016, there were 41 instances of that kind of paraphernalia; during the same period in 2017, there were 147 cases. That’s a whole lotta white supremacist propaganda. To put it more eloquently, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called it an “unprecedented volume of propagandist activity designed to recruit young people to support their vile ideology.”
The most disgusting thing: Some of this might be due to plain old trolling, as in, the people distributing the materials don’t even believe in their contents so much as they believe in offending people. But that doesn’t mean that people still don’t have to look at it and face symbols and actual proclamations of this twisted ideology.
Lee Pelton, the president of Emerson College in Boston, told NPR that a bunch of paraphernalia from the white supremacist group America Vanguard was showing up on campus, although the school is known for being pretty liberal. He noted in the April 2017 interview:
So white supremacist groups are either not very smart about their recruitment strategy, or they’re doing it on purpose to get a rise out of the student body and the school. In that case, the end goal would be to have the school ban flyers (or meetings, or speakers) so they could cover it on one of their fake news sites and end up with more excuses to broadcast their offensive vitriol. The white supremacist machine is usually just a hamster wheel of idiocy, until, of course, it actually turns violent. The uptick of white supremacist recruitment has also led to a rise in white supremacist violence this year. We can’t just shrug it off as a bunch of trolls — it’s still a big deal.
But unless the speech, verbal or non-verbal, poses an immediate threat to someone’s well being or private property, schools have to allow the flyers and brochures, just like they do for all the other groups and events on campus.
The Supreme Court upheld in Brandenburg v. Ohio, which says that the government can’t punish speech unless it’s intentional and effective in provoking a crowd to “immediately carry out violent and unlawful action.” In that case, the court found that a Ku Klux Klan leader couldn’t be jailed for saying “here might have to be some revengeance [sic] taken” for the “continued suppression of the white, Caucasian race.” Terrible, but there’s good reason for the precedent: In another case, the NAACP v. Clairborne Hardware, civil rights activist Charles Evans couldn’t get in trouble for saying, “If we catch any of you going in any of them racist stores, we’re going to break your damn neck.”
Calls to action are the hallmark of political activism, so we want these super high bars set for protected speech.
There are some things schools can do. For example, according to the ACLU:
Administrators should be brazen when finding ways to protect their students from hate, so finding loopholes in the law and school policies is first step. Hey, the law and institutional policies are often used against people of color or women, so weaponizing it against hate, for once, is very welcome. Schools can also do more than just shrug their shoulders and pretend like it’s not happening. Like, don’t invite racists to speak at all, or at least have a standard for what kind of material can be hung up and distributed on campus.
Instead, actively countering the hate speech is the best thing to do. They can take down their own white supremacist monuments and rename their private buildings so that they don’t honor famous racists. Schools can encourage student protests, hire diverse faculty and staff, financially support the campus newspaper, and invite guest speakers that have actual, complex, and insightful things to say about the world onto campus. That kind of critical thinking is the best antidote to white supremacy on college campuses, since prohibiting speech only defeats the purpose in the long run.