As the alt-right — a term for white nationalism with origins in pre-World War II fascism and white supremacy — experiences a resurgence in the U.S., college and university campuses are increasingly finding themselves in the middle of a nationwide battle over political discourse and free speech.
Appearances and speaking engagements by prominent alt-right figures, such as Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos, have become more commonplace on college campuses. Most recently, the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee led to protests, clashes, and violence on the University of Virginia’s campus in Charlottesville. At the same time, many higher education institutions, now serving a growing population of students from underrepresented and marginalized groups, are embracing the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion while still supporting the free expression of ideas.
For some college Republicans, who may feel increasingly excluded on liberal campuses, the alt-right speaks to their feelings of being shut out. But as Lecia Brooks, outreach director at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), points out, the alt-right ideology centers not on productive political discussion, but the idea that “white identity” is under attack.
“People like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer go out of their way to seek out invitations from the Young Republicans. They’re using them, [posing] themselves as speakers from conservative political thought, when really their message is white nationalism,” Brooks says. “This is not political discourse — this is white supremacy.”
“[Some] college administrators [tell students] they should go, listen to, challenge, and ask them questions,” she adds. “No — this gives them some academic cachet that they don’t deserve.”
With the dual purpose of creating awareness of the alt-right’s agenda and providing recommendations for how to counter the movement, SPLC created a guide titled The Alt-Right On Campus: What Students Need to Know, which it sent to 2,400 colleges and all 75 historically black institutions. The guide exposes the movement’s underlying ideologies, profiles its key figures, and offers constructive approaches to counter alt-right propaganda and on-campus speakers.
“Students weren’t really aware of who these personalities were and what they were really talking about, so we thought it was important to give them information based on our research … because they were trying to present themselves as something they were not,” Brooks explains. “It seemed like administrators didn’t know how to respond or, we felt, weren’t responding strongly enough or preparing these students for the speakers. [They] were just saying, ‘We have to honor free speech rights,’ … and that was it.”
Thus, when an alt-right figure is scheduled to speak on a campus, “the most effective course of action is to deprive the speaker of the thing he or she wants most — a spectacle,” the guide states. While SPLC believes there is nothing wrong with peacefully protesting hateful ideology, instead of directly confronting these individuals, the organization advocates for hosting alternative events “to highlight your campus’s commitment to inclusion and our nation’s democratic values” in order to draw attention away from the alt-right and toward a message of hope.
While taking back the narrative in this way, Brooks says, is important, SPLC provides key steps to take prior to alt-right speaking events occurring on campus. These include researching institutional processes for approving outside speakers as well as the alt-right’s history and views; meeting with campus groups that are most often targeted by the alt-right, such as LGBTQ individuals, Muslims, and Jews, to enlist their support; approaching the group hosting the speaker with concerns; and raising awareness among all campus constituents about what the alt-right stands for to build a community opposed to bigotry.
Brooks says the creation of the guide was sparked primarily by SPLC’s desire to protect free speech rights, and as such, she understands and appreciates the situation that colleges and universities find themselves in. However, that many of them act as if “their hands are strung by the First Amendment” is a lie, she argues, and she believes hosting an alternate event can have a major impact.
“Let [the alt-right speakers] come and then have nobody show up,” Brooks says. “[Use this] tremendous opportunity to send a message to them that what they’re selling is rejected.”
For more information, visit splcenter.org.