By Lillie Eastham, F/G Scholar
“Is it okay to punch a Nazi?” is a question that would seemingly be simple to answer. In the past, Nazis have only been thought of as the obviously evil masterminds behind the genocide of millions of people. However, what if the ‘Nazi’ in question, is a well-dressed man who calls himself a member of the ‘Alt-Right’ and is exercising his right to speech? Is he still easily punchable?
This debate arose in 2017 when leader of the Alt-Right, Richard Spencer, was punched in the face in the middle of an interview in broad daylight. It is important to note that Spencer does not self-identify as a Nazi. His ideas include creating a country that is a “safe space” for white people, that “Africans have benefited from white supremacy” and that all of society’s advances have come from the white man. (Younge 2017) According to The Atlantic, one study showed that the alt-right itself views members of minorities, women and even Democrats as ‘sub-human’.
This is far from Spencer’s first controversy revolving around free speech. Spencer recently embarked on a college tour that was poorly attended, especially in comparison to the number of protestors that it attracted. (Lennard 2018) Many universities were hesitant to have Spencer there because of the predicted financial costs of having a member of the alt-right on campus. When Milo Yiannopolous visited Berkeley, it cost the university 3.9 million dollars in security costs, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. This is largely due to Antifa, a counter-movement to the alt-right that uses any means necessary, including violence, to shut down appearances from members of the alt-right.
But are their methods working, or do they just give the alt-right the attention that they crave? In order to get Spencer’s opinion, you must go to his YouTube page. Once there, a warning appears to tell the viewer that the content is offensive. When you click that you understand, YouTube still restricts the comments, likes, dislikes and does not suggest any similar videos due to the subject matter of the video. In the video, Spencer announces that he is postponing his college tour due to the constant protests by Antifa.
But even if unconventional methods, such as violence, are able to deter hate speech, what effect will it have on public opinion? Is it in the spirit of the First Amendment? When Spencer was initially punched, Twitter exploded with users comparing the assailant to Captain America or Indiana Jones. (Stack 2017) In a since deleted tweet, Nick Spencer (no relation), Captain America’s writer, came out against the violence, “Today is difficult, but cheering violence against speech, even of the most detestable, disgusting variety, is not a look that will age well.” (Gaudette 2017)
When Berkeley students were interviewed, they initially said that yes, it is okay to punch a Nazi. However, they were also critical of Antifa for making it appear that their campus was unwelcoming of civil discourse, when in reality very few actual students participated in the destructive protests. (Monticello 2018) When it was debated on Bill Maher’s show he argued that punching Nazi’s was counterproductive, especially considering that the ‘Nazis’ of today, at least high-profile ones such as Spencer, are only practicing free speech, not acting out in violent ways. His guest John Heilemann insisted that it should be confronted with “better speech and more speech.” Tom Morello, on the other hand, argued that standing firmly against those that expressing these kinds of views is what prevents the alt-right movement from gaining momentum.
The debate about whether it’s okay to punch a Nazi can be a rather silly one. Many people will never have the opportunity, and even fewer would actually act upon it when given the chance. However, it is important debate to have when it comes to the very real problem of how hate speech should be confronted. Recently, Yiannopolous posted to Facebook to complain that nearly all of his events were being cancelled due to public outcries. (Heath 2018) However, it is a widely held belief that a public distaste for the increasingly violent protests in the 1960s actually contributed to the election of Richard Nixon. (Monticello 2018)
Ultimately, it is illegal to punch anyone unless physically provoked, whether they are a Nazi or not. The First Amendment protects their right to preach hate, as long as they do not directly incite violence. However, the First Amendment does not protect anyone from the consequences of their speech, therefore, it is also well within university student’s rights to protest if someone who they feel has dangerous views is coming to their campus. If the protestors far outweigh the supporters, as was the case for the majority of Spencer’s college tour, it is an example of the Marketplace of Ideas at work to suppress hate speech naturally, no violence necessary.
Gaudette, E. (2017, January 23). “Hydra Captain America” Writer Defends White Nationalist. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.inverse.com/article/26752-hydra- captain-america-richard-spencer-getting-punched-alt-right-nazi-sympathizer-nick-spencer
Heath, E. (2018, August 27). Milo Yiannopoulos is angry again, this time at his own fans. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.sfgate.com/national/article/Milo- Yiannopoulos-is-angry-again-this-time-at-13185883.php
McKay, T. (2018, March 12). Richard Spencer Cancels College Tour No One Was Attending Anyway, Blames Antifa. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://gizmodo.com/richard-spencer-postpones-college-tour-no-one-was-atten- 1823720014
Monticello, J., & Weissmueller, Z. (2018, February 16). Is It OK To Punch a Nazi? We Asked Berkeley Students. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://reason.com/reasontv/2018/02/16/ok-punch-nazi-berkeley-students-campus
Murphy, P. P. (2017, January 21). White nationalist Richard Spencer punched during interview. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2017/01/20/politics/white-nationalist-richard- spencer-punched/index.html
R. (2017, September 29). Punching Nazis | Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzW8NYeQbo4
Stack, L. (2017, December 22). Attack on Alt-Right Leader Has Internet Asking: Is It O.K. to Punch a Nazi? Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/21/us/politics/richard-spencer-punched-attack.html
Steinmetz, K. (2017, June 01). Berkeley College: The Riots Over Free Speech. Retrieved from http://time.com/4800813/battle-berkeley-free-speech/
College Tour Course Correction. (2018, March 11). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFT9UHytoxI&feature=youtu.be&bpctr=153720859
Younge, G. (2017, November 08). Why interviewing Richard Spencer was a risk worth taking | Gary Younge. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/08/interviewing-richard-spencer- white-supremacist