At first glance, HB 498, recently signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey, sounds like an unnecessary reiteration of protected free speech as articulated in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The bill is designed to protect the rights of people in collegiate settings to engage in discourse without penalty or censure, particularly in cases where the speech is deemed highly controversial or offensive. However, a more in-depth look into why the Republican supermajority thought such a measure was urgently needed in Alabama reveals their disturbing motivation and rationale.

The whole thing began two years ago when white nationalist and hate monger Richard Spencer tried to rent an auditorium for a speech at Auburn University. Not surprisingly, there was collective outrage that an avowed racist like Spencer would be given a platform at a public university to spread his message of bigotry. Among the plethora of racist and ignorant quotes from Spencer, some are genuinely jaw-dropping and antithetical to American values. For example, in a 2016 interview with Time magazine, Spencer said, “Trump has opened the door to nationalism in this country — not American nationalism but the white race. Once that door has fully swung open, you can’t close it.” He’s denounced Martin Luther King, Jr. as a fraud and he’s described America as belonging solely to white people. In short, Spencer isn’t just an unapologetic racist; he’s also seriously trying to find ways to “ethnically cleanse” the United States.

Characterizing Spencer’s views and speech as ‘controversial’ or ‘offensive’ is wrong because it’s much more than that. It is hate speech. Its sole purpose is to promote racism and violence. In America, Spencer, indeed, has a right to express his reprehensible and disgusting views. This isn’t about being politically correct; it’s about speech designed to incite hostility. But the real question is, why would Alabama Republicans want to take away the discretion of public universities? What redeeming, edifying, or educational values are expressed in Spencer’s hate-filled speech?

Perhaps, it’s because Alabama Republicans want extremists, racists, and bigots to know that there’s plenty of room in their big red tent for them, too. It explains why they passed a bill to eliminate marriage licenses so that conservative Probate Judges wouldn’t have to marry gay couples. It explains why they passed an abortion ban without exceptions for rape and incest so that women would understand their place as second-class citizens. It may also tell why they feel yoga is an affront to Christianity, but most probably despise it because they don’t know what it is. It’s why they gerrymander districts every chance they can get to ensure white and conservative legislative majorities. Passing this bill wasn’t a dog whistle, it was a scream into a bullhorn to let conservative extremists know that the AL GOP is eagerly buying what they’re selling.

Of course, universities should be a place where free speech is cherished and where controversial views are openly debated. However, they should not be forced to endorse hate speech that incites ethnic cleansing and violence. AL HB 498 was only passed to ensure that bigots like Spencer have a forum at public universities and colleges. Alabama Republicans thought this was much more important than ensuring Alabamians have access to healthcare or fixing the state’s third-world prisons.

This was just more absurdist political theater from the Republicans, but it also clearly shows that they have a real problem finding the courage to denounce prejudice and bigotry. Republicans need to take a real hard look at their party if their base is celebrating Spencer’s win and a bill that forces universities to give hate speech a legitimate platform.

Hate speech isn’t controversial – it’s simply hate speech and it has no place in our colleges.

Clete Wetli
Clete Wetli is former Chair of the Madison County Democrats and a liberal political activist.