The First Amendment grants the right to speak in public. But what makes such speech “free?” We consider this right an expression of “freedom” because colonists described the Revolutionary War as a battle of liberation from slavery to King George. Of course, the colonists were not actually enslaved. Only black people endured this fate. But even though the colonists compared themselves to slaves, they did not ally with them. The Revolution’s struggle against metaphorical slavery in fact replaced and was perceived as more important than the struggle against real slavery.
This founding dynamic continues to place campaigns for black freedom at a rhetorical disadvantage. We consider the First Amendment’s protections against the metaphorical slavery of speech-censorship to be “the essence of our democracy.” But black people attaining freedom from what Saidiya Hartman terms “the afterlife of [real] slavery” matters much less. Ultimately, we believe that “reasonable people” can disagree about the moral status of the Movement for Black Lives but those who reject free speech turn their backs on America itself.
By re-branding his crusade for a “white ethno-state in North America” as a campaign for free speech, Richard Spencer markets himself to more moderate whites as not a potential perpetrator of tyranny, but a victim of it. He has picked this battle because he is fighting an unpopular war. Public universities should let him win the former and he will lose the latter.
Besides, Spencer does not really want “freedom”—not even the First Amendment kind. For example, he granted only certain journalists access to his recent speech at the University of Florida. He instead wants to make white men masters again.
But he has mistaken the rhetoric of the American Revolution for the reality of America. White people live through people of color; therefore, they cannot live without them. After all, masters live not independently, but parasitically. Spencer can hide behind free speech, but he cannot change the truth about himself: he needs people of color more than they need him.