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Editorial: Defending free speech critical

From The Wheeling News-Register:

Ohio State University officials are in a tough position. They have been asked to allow “white nationalist” Richard Spencer to speak on campus, but have said no due to safety concerns.

“White nationalist” is the currently accepted term for someone we used to call a racist. No doubt allowing Spencer to speak on the OSU campus would carry with it the risk of violence.

But is that an acceptable reason to limit freedom of speech on a college campus? Or are those who claim to champion unfettered exchange of ideas, as colleges and universities do, obligated to take risks in defense of free speech?

Apparently, we have come a long way since most thoughtful Americans agreed with the opinion that, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

A number of colleges and universities have used the safety excuse to reject speeches by conservatives during recent years.

But give OSU and others who have banned conservative speakers a break. The record of attacks and riots directed against conservative speakers during the past year or so makes it clear there is reason for concern:

— This spring, rioters shut down the University of California at Berkeley for a time, to stop conservative Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking.

— In February, fights broke out during an appearance by conservative Gavin McInnes, who was hit by pepper spray.

— Last year, a conservative speaker at Columbia University in New York City was attacked while on stage. ∫ Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro was prevented from speaking at California State University in Los Angeles, while opponents barricaded the entrances to a theater and physically prevented some students from entering.

— Last March, violent protesters stopped a speech by conservative social scientist Charles Murray at Middlebury College, in Vermont. A professor with him was injured.

It really may be risky to have someone like Spencer — or even a non-bigoted conservative speaker — on campus.

An attorney has threatened to sue OSU if it does not allow Spencer to speak on campus. He has given university officials until 5 p.m. Friday to change their minds.

Meanwhile, OSU officials have said they will consider whether some alternative arrangement can be made for Spencer. We sympathize with them because, again, they have legitimate concerns about safety.

Still, they should find a way to let Spencer speak on campus, even if that means surrounding him with a solid wall of law enforcement officers. Otherwise, they will be allowing those who would use the threat of violence to curb freedom of speech win.

That is — or at least was, at one time — not acceptable in the United States of America.

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