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WASHINGTON — There was a time when America’s colleges and universities considered free speech to be protected as long it didn’t involve inciting a riot or shouting fire in a crowded theater or such. No longer is that true, it seems.

A disruption over Nazi Richard Spencer’s appearance at Michigan State University was clear enough evidence that there is a new tolerance for irrational rhetoric afoot on the campus. Even when it is clear that it will or might lead to violence, administrators are reluctant to deny even the most dangerous speech because they are concerned that to do so diminishes the legitimacy of the academy.

Well so much for the idea that free thought fares better in a nonviolent atmosphere. The free speech movement of the 1960s proved that far more was accomplished by peaceful sit-ins and marches than militant activity. The Weather Underground and its bombs were not nearly as effective as the megaphone demanding the right to calm and measured debate.

But what about the notion of free access to free spaces — the soap box on the corner? Fine, but even Hyde Park has its limits. Smashing the heads of those who agree with the speaker or vice versa doesn’t really occur in the icon of British free speech.

The resurgence of anger among younger white male Americans is rooted in a feeling of social displacement supported at times by the current presidential administration. On the other side, fascism is the most hateful and obnoxious of political movements, one that infuriates any rational human being and pushes him or her toward violent extremes. The minute a Spencer appearance is announced the wheels of angst begin grinding toward mayhem. Our own emotions to the word “Nazi” spark such anger. Its connection to the Holocaust so enrages us that we want to take extreme action against anyone who would find an ounce of nobility in promoting its concepts.

Still, there are the despicable ignoramuses who believe they have the same rights to argue such putrid garbage as those who freely rebut it from the academic stage.

Now here’s the crunch. That might not be the case if they weren’t yelling fire in the crowded theater, which the white supremacists certainly are — and they know it.

College and university presidents these days are hired for their money-raising skills; the academic decisions are mainly in the hands of deans and vice presidents of academic affairs. Yet in the end, if things go wrong, the blame is tied to the school’s chief executive, on grounds he has failed to see the dangers and prepare for them.

A long time ago the U.S. Supreme Court gave us the way out. It said there are such things as “fighting words” and applied to the Constitution the restriction of inciting to overthrow the government or panicking an audience resulting in dire consequences by shouting fire when there isn’t one. So, the president or other top administrator has plenty of leeway to deny what he feels is a clear or present danger to the school and its students.

Cities may withhold a permit for a protest march depending on what they believe the outcome may be or the cost or even the lack of adequate security.

For nearly every cause, there are venues where the message can be disseminated safer than on a campus where anger is always quick to ignite. Colleges are vulnerable exactly because they believe it is their duty to expand knowledge everywhere and for whatever the cost, which can be extremely high including injury, death and destruction.

Michigan State officials knew and warned that there might be disruption, and violence; even moving the venue to the far reaches of the campus didn’t help. Fortunately, there were no fatalities in the fights that broke out. But the school should have just said no to Spencer. Their first obligation is always to the students and the institution.

Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at


(6) comments


I hope all and sundry reading here will take note that the courageous new2 has shown absolutely no faith in his own convictions, ducking my offer of a bet for nearly a week now. The details are lower in this string.


excellent column! Universities have no obligation to let fascists and other hate filled speakers on to their campus facilities. Speaker who want to incite division and hate and violence against others should never be allowed. Doesn't matter from what side of the political isle they come from.


Their obligation is to let everyone have their say and attempt to protect them so they can. If it's not what you want to here, don't listen or you have the same opportunity to speak your views. This is America and we do not suppress speech, even if it's from the left and you know what they spout about.


wrong new2. Read the article again. your comments are so dense. You can't yell fire in a crowded theater if there is non. Not all speech is protected. Speech that also incites violence and harm to others is not protected. You are so off, its no wonder you roll to the drum beat of the tea party idiots.


yes two months of silence from new2 would be a welcome relief from the constant jabber he gets straight from the right wing extremists. His half witted comments are enough to conclude he is nothing more than a goose stepping fascists who doesn't have a clue. Hiding in the weeds behind the outhouse is the only thing he is good at and does so often.


new2, since you are such a defender of right wing "common sense" and one of its notable practitioners, out in front daily on these posts telling us of your deeply held convictions, despite all the efforts you imply that "the left" uses to try to suppress your voice, I as a public service want to give you one more chance to put your money where your mouth is. You ran away from the opportunity on another string here, so I will resurrect it, knowing you are SUCH a principled man:

oldhomey Mar 12, 2018 2:19pm

I hope this column doesn't age out and disappear before tomorrow morning. It appears new2 is back in the weeds hiding with his pals Buggs and Snow Cougar. I want to make sure he sees this challenge one more time, so that he can respond:

new2Lax Mar 9, 2018 9:18pm
You need not worry about Trumps tenure, he will be here for the duration. If you are a betting man, I'll give you ten to one he will be here. Half the Obama Administration , many in the FBI DOJ and IRS should be in prison for god sake. The IRS just finished paying off the Tea-Party members who filed suit and issued a written apology to them, in the millions. Andrew McCabe fired for his actions and biases as well as Peter Strzok and Lisa Page they are FBI employee's. From the DOJ, you have Bruce and Nellie Ohr.
So far Trump has taken care of ISIS and now North Korea, although it did take almost a year. Thank god Susan Rice's idea about maybe having to live with a nuclear North Korea isn't on the table. I'm sure, if time permits Trump will straighten out the Iran nuclear deal as well. These are the folks who will be investigated and prosecuted. There are many more but you know that.

oldhomey Mar 10, 2018 2:33pm
I tell you what, new2, this is a way to put your money where your mouth is, and it won't cost you (or me) a cent. I will let you choose the time frame, but it has to be within the next six months. Since you say Trump has already solved the North Korean nuclear problem, give me a date when it will be done, with signed agreements by all parties that North Korea is disarming its nuclear warfare program. If it is signed, sealed and delivered by the time you say it will be (here you're claiming it is already a done deal), then I will refrain from posting in these comment sections for two months. You, of course, will have to stop posting for the same period if it turns out that there is no such agreement from North Korea to scrap its nukes by the end of the time frame you choose. By the way, if Trump indeed pulls this off, I predict a huge GOP victory in the upcoming off-year elections. If he blows this as bad as it is beginning to stack up, well, who knows?

oldhomey Mar 11, 2018 4:57pm
new2? Will you take the bet, or won't you? No hiding in the weeds on this one.
oldhomey Mar 14, 2018 5:53pm

I guess new2 is officially hiding in the weeds, deciding that perhaps he should not take my bet, because he understands that he would lose it badly. Ahh, to have had two months of silence from new2! What bliss it would be, but it will not come to be, I guess, because he is, as I knew he would be, a coward when it comes to his convictions.

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