Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer are two prominent speakers who have caused controversy when they attempt to give, or succeed in giving, speeches on college campuses.
While these speakers might have different messages — Yiannopoulos once said feminism was cancer and Spencer expresses white supremacist ideologies — what they do have in common is their claim of conservative ideals and the push back they have received speaking on campuses.
Free speech on campus has been a contentious issue for decades, which recently exploded during the 2016 election. Because of the election result and the turmoil that followed, some conservatives say they are being silenced on campuses nationwide and throughout the halls and green space of Ohio State.
“The great irony of a college campus is that campuses encourage diversity, in racial diversity, in gender diversity, in religious diversity and socioeconomic diversity,” said Niraj Antani, the youngest member of the Ohio House of Representatives, a Republican and Ohio State alumnus. “But when it comes to thought diversity and ideological diversity they are hostile and that’s a problem. Professors and administrations should be welcoming to all ideologies and they’re not. And that does occur at Ohio State.”
Antani, who was president of the Ohio State College Republicans, said the marginalization of conservative speech on campuses is not a new phenomenon and has been happening at Ohio State for at least eight years, when he started in Autumn 2009.
“[Students] don’t want to stand up in a class and defend Trump or Republicans because they think their professor might grade them poorly because of that,” Antani said.
Kenny Horsley, a second-year in political science and a member of College Republicans, said that he felt animosity as a first-year student and as a small minority of his scholars group that held conservative views.
Horsley said he experienced “back-door” threats because of his expressed political ideology.
“It’s mostly stuff that’s all talk, but there are violent threats,” he said. “It’s people that are not open to ideas.”
Alternatively, Brad McKinniss, a graduate student and president of Young Democratic Socialists at Ohio State, said speakers who are further left than mainstream Democrats probably have a harder time on campuses.
“In a way, it’s worse for leftist speakers because it’s been happening to left speakers for years, if not decades, where they have been ‘de-platformed’ and not allowed to speak about current issues,” he said.
Lately, Ohio State has been embroiled in the free-speech debate for denying Richard Spencer’s request to speak on campus twice, while the University of Cincinnati announced it allow Spencer to speak on its campus this fall.
Antani said while people certainly should disagree with individuals or groups that spread a negative message, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be allowed to speak.
“Just because you disagree with my free speech, that doesn’t mean you get to ban it,” he said.
McKinnis said the decision to deny Spencer’s request for campus space was the right decision by the university, and that there is a fundamental difference between the right-wing and left-wing speakers that are trying to come to campuses.
He said far-right speakers like Spencer spread violent messages, while left-wing speakers “are just trying to speak about people that are oppressed.”
McKinniss added that students can’t leave it up to the administration to stop speakers like Spencer coming to campus.
“The onus is on students and professors in a way to not allow this to go any further. I am very glad the university didn’t allow him, but we can’t always rely on the university to protect us,” McKinniss said.
Ohio State has made news for denying Spencer, but it certainly has not been grabbing headlines the way a campus like University of California, Berkeley has, specifically its decisions to allow speeches that have resulted in costly damages and large police forces.
“Just because you disagree with my free speech, that doesn’t mean you get to ban it.” – Niraj Antani, the youngest member of the Ohio House of Representatives, a Republican and Ohio State alumnus.
Nick Davis, a fourth-year in natural resource management and president of Ohio State Students for Trump, said he thinks Ohio State’s campus has its problems, but that it is not as bad as UC Berkeley when it comes to political division.
“It’s better, it’s just not perfect,” Davis said. “But you don’t get perfect anywhere.”
Many controversial speakers have been labeled as alt-right, which is a white nationalist movement that has become prominent.
But Davis said the alt-right labeling is not a fair way to portray the conservative movement on campuses.
“I don’t think the alt-right represents what the conservative movement is about,” he said. “They have their separate ideals and their separate values and opinions. Do I agree with them? Not necessarily. Do I think they should be allowed to voice their opinions? Sure, everyone should be allowed to voice their opinions. But they don’t represent what the right is supposed to be.”
According to the group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Ohio State is coded as “yellow,” meaning it has at least “one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application” of free speech. FIRE is a group founded by University of Pennsylvania libertarian professor Alan Charles Kors, and its stated goal is “defending individual rights in education.”
One of the main Ohio State policies that FIRE takes umbrage with, claiming its vagueness allows for infringement on free speech, is regarding the Bias Assessment and Response Team.
The policy states: “Bias incidents are acts or behaviors motivated by the offender’s bias against age, ancestry, color, disability, gender identity or expression, genetic information, HIV/AIDS status, military status, national origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or veteran status.”
Ben Johnson, an Ohio State spokesman, said the university is committed to creating a diverse community welcoming to everyone on campus.
“Ohio State has found that maintaining such an environment requires a transparent effort to learn about and address incidents of bias and discrimination on our campuses,” Johnson said in an email. “BART enables The Ohio State University to stay informed about incidents in the community involving bias or hate. BART does not have authority to issue sanctions. Reports to BART are referred to other university units for further evaluation and action when appropriate.”
Antani, who is co-sponsoring a campus free speech bill, said universities must start with a policy that allows everyone on campus to have free speech.
“If you are going to rent out facilities to outside groups, then you have to rent out facilities to outside groups,” he said. “You cannot determine that depending on what type of speaker they are.”
McKinniss, however, said he believes the First Amendment is being misconstrued.
“A lot of people misunderstand free speech as everyone should be given a platform, but that’s not how it works,” McKinniss said.
The Supreme Court has said that not all speech is protected. For example, any speech that leads to or elicits violence,
Moving forward, the students interviewed for this story expressed a hope that political speech on campus can return to a civil discussion.
“In order to make progress, in order to move forward, both sides have to be able to share their opinions so we can work out which one is right and which one is wrong. How can we make this better and move forward as a society?” Davis said.
McKinnis said he would like to see debates on campus move back to a more civil climate, but that he doesn’t see it happening anytime soon.
“This election was a breaking point for a lot of people in a lot of different ways,” McKinniss said.
Davis said change is necessary for political discussion, and cannot be changed with a single policy.
“The culture, in general, at Ohio State, and the country in general, people need to be more accepting and more tolerant of other people’s views,” Davis said. “They’re all constantly preaching tolerance and acceptance until they think differently than [someone], and that’s something as a society we need to work on.”