The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Tuesday on "The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses." The meeting came just a day after the Supreme Court ruled that hate speech, no matter how bigoted it may be, is still protected by the Constitution.
The Family Research Council commended Chairman Chuck Grassley and Sen. Dianne Feinstein for addressing the issue of free speech being muzzled on campuses, but the conservative organization was perplexed by the appearance of one particular witness.
"It is extremely ironic that one of your witnesses is actually an enemy of free speech," Lt. General (Ret.) William Boykin, the executive vice president of FRC, said in a letter to the senators.
Boykin was referring to Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen. The SPLC, Boykin reminded the committee, has been linked to two terrorist shootings in the D.C. area within the past five years. One occurred at the Family Research Council in 2012, when an armed man stormed the D.C. office with a plot to kill all employees because the FRC was on the SPLC's "Hate Map." A hero security guard thankfully stopped the attack. The other is the tragic shooting last week at a congressional baseball practice. The shooter, James T Hodgkinson, was apparently a fan of the SPLC.
In his testimony, Cohen acknowledged that free speech is an important part of a student's life. However, he included a caveat.
First, the First Amendment is a pillar of our democracy that must be protected by institutions of higher learning. But university administrators also have obligations to provide safe environments for their students and to speak out forcefully in defense of the democratic values that define our nation.
In other words, yes, campuses should allow people like Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulis to speak, but they should also be prepared to speak out against them.
Cohen was particularly concerned about the rise of "white nationalism" on college campuses, citing Richard Spencer's recent invitation to Auburn. He is concerned that many of these white supremacists are rallying around President Trump. Yet, even they, Cohen reiterated, are protected by the First Amendment.
"The bigot has a right to speak."
A POLITICO reporter offered this summary.
Richard Cohen of @SPLC says racists don't deserve an audience, but colleges shouldn't do anything to make them 1st Amendment martyrs.— Ben Wermund (@BenjaminEW) June 20, 2017
Cohen says he defends the First Amendment, but again, the FRC has its doubts.
"The SPLC has no interest in an exchange of ideas, even with peaceful, mainstream groups," Boykin argued.
He also doesn't expect them to change. The SPLC, he suggested, will continue to incite violence.
"As it seeks to defame and destroy, the depth to which the SPLC will sink knows almost no bottom." You can read Cohen's full testimony here.
Cohen and the SPLC was mostly recently engaged in opposing President Trump's "discriminatory" travel order.