The episode is last month’s news: Auburn University agreed to a speaking engagement at the school’s Foy Auditorium, rented for $700 by white nationalist Richard Spencer, the activist to whom the term “alt-right” is frequently attributed.
Then, after an outcry against Spencer’s appearance — a reaction which should hardly have been unexpected — the university, citing safety concerns, canceled the event. (In Auburn’s defense, if not a particularly strong one, the out-of-control nonsense at Berkeley was close enough in the rear-view mirror to fog the glass.)
Cameron Padgett, Spencer’s sponsor and organizer for the event, sued successfully in U.S. District Court in Montgomery, and Spencer appeared as scheduled.
As reported Tuesday in the Opelika-Auburn News, Auburn has agreed to pay $29,000 in legal fees, as the university announced in a statement, “to avoid more costly litigation costs.” (As in, a case AU would almost certainly have lost.)
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So Auburn will pay $29,000 as a result of an event it agreed to, then unsuccessfully moved to stop; was rightly not allowed to stop; and under the circumstances should never have tried to stop.
Except for three arrests involving a fight that broke out before the event even began (something booze-fueled students on the average American college campus manage regularly, and without the incitement of politics), the event was marked by nothing more noteworthy than civil protests, a concert and a few shouting matches.
Spencer, also not unexpectedly, called the outcome “a victory for free speech.” He’s right, and it was. That the “victors” in these cases are so often the Richard Spencers and the Larry Flynts and the flag-burners and so on might make the rest of us feel as if we’ve been sucking on very green lemons, but that doesn’t change the bigger picture. It’s only non-controversial, non-offensive, non-provocative expression that needs no protection — which is exactly why the Founders, in their wisdom, moved to protect the other kinds.
In a classic and uniquely American irony, it is all but certain that sometime soon, yet another group of politicians — who would almost certainly, and rightly, defend the free expression rights of Richard Spencer — will introduce yet another in a long series of proposed constitutional amendments to make desecration of the flag as a form of protest a federal crime. They will argue, as always, that Americans have paid with their lives defending that flag.
As retired Col. Robert B. Simpson, a Vietnam veteran and longtime columnist, wrote eloquently in one of his first columns for the Ledger-Enquirer years ago, Americans have died for the precious principles our flag represents, not for fabric and dye.
Likewise, the victory here is for the precious principle of free expression, not for the incoherent ranting of a racist boob.
Auburn will pay a dollar price for free speech only because of an ill-considered, if well-intentioned, attempt to abridge it. Compared to what others have paid, it’s chump change.