Commentary Magazine

You Say Free Speech, They Say White Nationalism

(AP Photo/Scott Sonner)

William Jacobson, founder of the blog Legal Insurrection, is among the best reporters I know on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. Of late, his blog has been more concerned with denouncing the excesses of President Trump’s critics than with criticizing the present administration. Nonetheless, Professor Jacobson is worth listening to, and his appearance on a college campus should not raise eyebrows, much less panic. But at Vassar College, where it was no problem last year to invite a speaker to accuse Israel of harvesting the body parts of young Palestinians, Professors Jacobson’s appearance terrified a non-negligible proportion of the student body.

Professor Jacobson was invited by the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union to speak about hate speech and free speech. His utterly mainstream view is that hate speech not only is but also should be protected by the First Amendment.

Somehow, members of H2A became convinced or thought it useful to claim that Jacobson would propose the “legitimization of hate speech,” that one could expect “neo-Nazis and white supremacists to show up,” and that “trans and queer folk” would “be targeted.” Not one but two well-attended meetings took place to discuss “safety,” which meant not only safety from the trauma that might be provoked by Jacobson’s words but also literal physical safety. Attendees were urged to interact “with the speaker in a way that does not put Black, brown, Jewish, queer and trans bodies at risk.” Apparently, a rumor spread that Jacobson himself “might be a white supremacist.”

H2A was remarkably successful at persuading others that Jacobson, who is not a white supremacist and who came to Vassar to defend a position frequently defended by liberals, was a threat. The Vassar Student Association, supposedly representing the student body, urged Vassar’s president to breach the contract made with Jacobson and to prevent him from coming to campus. In addition, urged President Elizabeth Bradley to “denounce the sentiments and ideologies underlying these types of events, instrumentalizing the language of ‘free speech’ to allow a platform for hate.”

That this characterization of Jacobson’s position on free speech was a fabrication did not prevent President Bradley from acknowledging the “very real and legitimate” pain students were feeling and praising the “excellent and compassionate work” H2A was doing to help “develop safety teams” to protect students. Although I suppose Bradley could have behaved more disgracefully—she did not directly criticize Jacobson, urge students not to attend, or try to cancel the event—this reaction is disgraceful enough.

Other campus groups also chimed in. The Vassar Jewish Union, for example, offered its facilities to “all people of marginalized identities” as a refuge from the lecture, noting that the Union “condemns white supremacy, Christian hegemony, patriarchy, and all other systems of oppression. We believe that all of these systems are interconnected, and that solidarity across marginalized identities is necessary to overthrow them.”

To Vassar’s credit, Professor Jacobson’s lecture was well-attended, uninterrupted, and distinguished by a lengthy question and answer session. Although those who opposed the lecture are more than a fringe element on Vassar’s campus, they do not, as the harshest campus critics would have it, control it. Recall that an anti-Israel resolution failed there last year.

Nonetheless, Jacobson’s critics are determined to learn nothing. They own up to only two mistakes. First, they were not quick enough to include Jews and Muslims as among those who might be threatened by Jacobson. Second, they depended too much on the prospect that white nationalists would show up to the lecture. That such white nationalists inconveniently failed to turn up in Poughkeepsie should not distract people from the fact that the Constitution was “created to justify [the] genocide of indigenous peoples and institutionalize chattel slavery.” The First Amendment is part of the Constitution, so, according to Jacobson’s detractors, appeals to it are themselves a species of white supremacist rhetoric. Where white nationalism is in the air we breathe, it hardly takes flesh and blood white nationalists to scare us straight.

In light of President Bradley’s inclination to treat the students who hold these views as campus heroes, Vassar is fortunate that Professor Jacobson was available to offer a dissenting view. Perhaps he’ll be willing to return next year.

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