When Republicans Opposed the Free Speech of David Duke

It is September 1996, California’s Proposition 209, banning gender or race preferences in college admissions, is on the ballot for November. Students at Cal State Northridge organized a debate between former Klansman and ongoing White racist David Duke and Civil Rights activist Joe Hicks on the topic of affirmative action. According to a story in the New York Times Newswire (1996-09-25 EMOTIONS RAGE ON CAMPUS PRIOR TO DAVID DUKE AFFIRMATIVE ACTION),

The controversy came to a head at a Student Senate meeting as members of the California State University, Northridge chapter of the College Republicans threatened to initiate a recall drive against student body President Vladimir Cerna unless he resigns by next week. Accusing Cerna of misconduct for his role in bringing Duke to campus, College Republicans President Rod Perry said his group had collected more than the roughly 2,500 signatures needed to launch a recall vote by students.”


“Some of the harshest criticism of Duke’s appearance has come from supporters of Proposition 209, the Nov. 5 California ballot initiative that would end racial and gender preferences in state and local government. Backers of the measure contend that Duke was invited to oppose affirmative action at today’s debate as a ploy to discredit the initiative through association with his extremist views. Duke, a former Louisiana state legislator who just lost his second bid for the U.S. Senate on Saturday, has disavowed his past ties to the Ku Klux Klan but continues to espouse racial separatism and white supremacy.

There was also a court case:

Meanwhile, a judge Tuesday rejected a second bid to block the Associated Students at CSUN from paying Duke for his appearance. Superior Court Judge William MacLaughlin said there is insufficient evidence to support student Kelly S. Novak’s claim that public money is being illegally spent to help oppose Proposition 209.

Notice. In 1996, the College Republicans thought it was an unfair attack on their opposition to affirmative action to associate it with a known White racist! There is so much to unpack in this. It is OK to advocate a policy that will have the impact of reducing Black and Hispanic access to college, but they think it is unfair to imply this has anything to do with overt White racism.

What about minorities? The news story says that the minority student organizations on the campus supported the invitation to Duke.

While some object to Duke’s appearance because they see it as an affront to minorities, women and gays, leaders of many minority groups on campus, including the Black Student Union, have strongly supported Cerna’s plans to include Duke in the debate. They were quick to rally to Cerna’s defense. “We voted you in for a reason. Stick with what you’re doing and don’t be bullied,” declared Harold Caldwell, president of the American Indian Student Association.

Not all minority activists agreed. The anti-Duke protesters came in from out of town.

Shortly before Tuesday’s Student Senate meeting, about eight members of the Bay Area group called the Coalition to Defense Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), held a news conference vowing to try to block Duke’s appearance. The Northern California activists said the debate was a misguided event that would give Duke a platform to espouse his views. They were confronted by angry CSUN students who branded them as uninvited interlopers. “This is Cal State Northridge,” said Marlon Barbarin, 24, a sophomore political science major. “It’s pretty much up to the students here whether we want to have (Duke) or not.”

A Google search reveals that this conflict received extensive coverage in Los Angeles area newspapers, although much of the coverage framed it in the expected way as minority protesters vs. David Duke, rather than noticing the ironic and unexpected elements of the story. Minority students were inviting David Duke to call attention to the White supremacist implications of opposition to affirmative action. White students who supported a measure that would benefit Whites at the expense of minorities were opposing the invitation and actively sought to block the appearance because they saw the association with White supremacy as unfair to them. Many minority activists saw the minority students’ ploy as misguided, believing that giving Duke a forum would just strengthen the forces of White supremacy, not delegitimatize them.

cross-posted at Scatterplot




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