“White Lives Matter” after Charlottesville

Shortly after Charlottesville, Virginia, became the site of deadly violence, Texas A&M University canceled a previously scheduled “White Lives Matter” rally, citing concerns that the event would turn violent. The University of Florida soon refused to allow a similar white supremacist event, followed by Michigan State and Louisiana State, with other colleges facing the same issue.

This raises a problem known in First Amendment law as the “heckler’s veto.” If speech that may lead to violence is banned, anyone can get anything censored by generating a sufficient threat of potential violence in response. But before pursuing the free speech issue, let me consider the speech that is at issue.

A good place to start is the slogan of the canceled rally: White Lives Matter. This is true, of course, but why say that? Obviously it is meant as a response to Black Lives Matter, which was followed by All Lives Matter and now White Lives Matter. If one takes these three slogans simply as independent moral propositions, they are fully consistent with each other and are all true. But consider them now in sequence and in context.

Black Lives Matter was a response to a series of killings of black boys and men under circumstances that led many to question whether black lives were taken as seriously as white lives. The clear message was Black Lives Matter too. No one suggested that only black lives matter. On the contrary, black lives matter precisely because all lives matter.

But if all lives matter, what’s wrong with the slogan All Lives Matter? It appears to be true, relevant, and morally important.

The problem lies in the sequence. Black Lives Matter (Too) already assumes that all lives matter, so it makes no sense to respond that All Lives Matter. Instead, a response of All Lives Matter implicitly misinterprets or misrepresents Black Lives Matter as Only Black Lives Matter. At best, this misses the point. At worst, All Lives Matter willfully deflects attention from black lives just when we are being reminded that they matter.

Now we have White Lives Matter. This would be a reasonable response to Only Black Lives Matter or Not All Lives Matter. But following Black Lives Matter (Too) and All Lives Matter, why respond with White Lives Matter, which has not been questioned? In this context and sequence, the most obvious interpretation of White Lives Matter is Only White Lives Matter, which contradicts the previous slogans and thus adds something new.

Only White Lives Matter is the ideology of white supremacy, including Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and Vanguard America, whose slogan is “Blood and Soil.” These are the people who organized the armed rally in Charlottesville.

But we should not permit our concern about white supremacists to blind us to another, and perhaps more common, reading of White Lives Matter. For many, this is a claim that white lives matter too.

Many white people perceive themselves to be living in a world where groups of all sorts get affirmative action while white lives and struggles are ignored or dismissed. Some, without denying that black lives matter, may be sympathetic to, or at least interested in, White Lives Matter (Too). Banning a White Lives Matter rally reinforces their sense of group victimization.

So how should colleges respond to plans for a White Lives Matter rally? They can of course deny or cancel any event that is intended to be violent. But if the threat of violence arises from the possibility of potentially violent counterdemonstrators, then to cancel the event is to give in to a “heckler’s veto.”

Once it becomes clear that speech can be silenced by a sufficient show of likely violence, moreover, there may be threats to all sorts of speech deemed objectionable. The heckler’s veto may come back to haunt in unexpected scenarios. Ultimately, white supremacists may be among the most successful in shutting down events they dislike by mustering credible threats of violence.

Maintaining both physical safety and intellectual freedom for all may be the top challenge of the coming academic year. Regardless of who the heckler may be, the heckler’s veto must not prevail. Colleges must ensure they have plans, procedures, and sufficient security to protect controversial speech and those who wish to hear it. We cannot permit threats of force and fears of violence to dictate what can be said on college campuses.

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