Earlier this month, white nationalist leader Richard Spencer rallied hundreds of torch-bearing followers for a march through the heart of the University of Virginia that began a weekend of rage and violence. He hopes to go back to Charlottesville soon.
“Colleges and universities are a great venue,” Spencer said. “I will never give those up.”
As the fall semester begins, schools across the United States are girding for fights over controversial speakers after an incendiary year that began with clashes at the University of California at Berkeley and worsened at U-Va. One by one in the days since the Charlottesville mayhem on Aug. 11 and 12, major public universities have shut their doors to Spencer and his followers. Their decisions illuminate the challenge of balancing campus values, security concerns and free speech protections.
The First Amendment “does not require a public institution to risk imminent violence to students and others,” University of Florida President W. Kent Fuchs said on Aug. 16, as the school denied a request from Spencer’s National Policy Institute that sought to rent a venue on campus for an event featuring Spencer.
Echoing others who have taken similar action, Fuchs called white nationalist rhetoric “racist” and “repugnant.” But these university leaders also insist that free speech and open debate are fundamental to higher education. And they face possible backlash — and the risk of court battles — when they deny people a platform to speak.
In April, a federal judge cited the First Amendment when he overturned Auburn University’s decision to cancel a Spencer event. Now, some argue the Charlottesville violence — including the death of a counterprotester struck by a car allegedly driven by a Nazi sympathizer the day after the U-Va. march — shows that schools are facing new and more challenging threats.
“What happened in Charlottesville — I’m very concerned that could happen again,” said Carol Christ, chancellor of UC-Berkeley. “The political situation has shifted in ways that some extremist groups of the right and the left feel authorized to kind of extraordinary violence. That’s really quite different than anything that happened, say, a year ago.”
Berkeley has drawn intense scrutiny this year.
In February, more than 100 masked anti-fascist extremists swarmed into a large crowd of peaceful demonstrators to smash windows, throw rocks and set fires to stop a speech by the provocative writer Milo Yiannopoulos. In April, debate erupted over whether conservative commentator Ann Coulter could or would hold an event on campus, and if she did, how the university would ensure security.
The episodes led Berkeley to revise rules for speakers and events, with an interim policy that remains content-neutral now requiring more advance notice so campus police can devise safety plans. The school has committed to copious expenditures to secure events. Hundreds of extra police officers were brought to campus in anticipation of the Coulter speech that never materialized, costing $600,000, according to school officials.
Last week, Christ told the Berkeley community that the campus known for the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s still holds that as a defining value. “Particularly now, it is critical that the Berkeley community come together once again to protect this right,” she wrote. “It is who we are.”
Naweed Tahmas, a leader of the Berkeley College Republicans, which along with the Young America’s Foundation sued the university after the Coulter incident, saying school officials had violated their First Amendment rights, was skeptical. He wrote in an email they had “seen this flowery rhetoric before” and that university officials had repeatedly used vague security concerns, arbitrary curfews and fees to silence conservative speech.
Yiannopoulos plans to return to UC-Berkeley next month. Conservative writer Ben Shapiro will also speak there this fall.
Critics say universities are too liberal and too quick to squelch opposing viewpoints.
“The violence and the rhetoric against conservatives on campus has been extremely chilling,” said Mike Wright, a senior at Berkeley involved in efforts to bring speakers to campus.
But university leaders say a growing number of people are coming to campuses to incite, rather than engage with ideas.
“There’s clearly a provocative side to much of what is being done,” said Nicholas Dirks, who in July stepped down as chancellor of UC-Berkeley. Groups will seek to book an event knowing they are likely to draw a denial, he said. “In many cases the tactic is to try to show that it’s the ‘liberal university’ that censors free speech.”
Many colleges are bracing for confrontations and the possibility of violence in the coming school year. Last spring, the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators held training sessions on how to prepare for divisive speakers. The next round, in October, will look at hate groups.
“Universities have always had controversial speakers,” said Sue Riseling, the group’s executive director. But these recent controversies are different: more speech that is hateful and targeted.
Hate groups are making “unprecedented” attempts to recruit on college campuses and plaster them with messages, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Some white nationalists say public university campuses provide an ideal platform. “They’re public spaces, places for debate, spaces historically for social change,” Spencer said. “Symbolism matters.”
At Texas A&M University, a former student named Preston Wiginton said he made plans months ago to hold a “White Lives Matter” event on Sept. 11 on the College Station campus. Wiginton said he is drawn to universities because today’s college students will be tomorrow’s leaders.
After Spencer spoke at Texas A&M in December 2016, Wiginton said six men reached out to him about starting an organization for white students. “So you know if there are six that reach out, there are probably 60 or 600 that are thinking they’re sick and tired of the diversity that’s shoved down their throat each day,” he said.
But Texas A&M shut down the Sept. 11 event after Charlottesville.
Tony Buzbee, a Texas A&M University System regent, said officials would examine policies for rallies and demonstrations. “We walk a line with fulfilling our obligation to make the school safe and allowing people to express themselves,” he wrote in an email. “My focus is on whether those coming have expressed an intention to be violent. If that is the case, the decision is much easier to make; but, in the end, as an institution, we always will err on the side of student safety.”
Bobby Brooks, 21, Texas A&M’s student body president, said he is still worried about whether people will come to campus unexpectedly and cause a violent disruption. “So, unfortunately, I don’t think the world has heard the last of white supremacy,” he said.
Pennsylvania State and Michigan State universities in recent days have denied requests for events featuring Spencer. Louisiana State University, responding to an inquiry, said the white nationalist should stay away from its Baton Rouge campus.
“As evidenced by the recent events in Charlottesville and at the University of Virginia, there is a very real possibility that allowing Mr. Spencer to convene on campus could lead to the endangerment of our students,” LSU President F. King Alexander said in a statement. “For that reason, he is not welcome at LSU.”
Whether these university decisions could withstand legal challenges is unclear. But some lawyers said the events in Charlottesville may at least temporarily give universities more solid ground to deny Spencer a venue, since they can argue that they have reason to fear similar violence. “It opened up the door for public campuses to say no,” said Scott Schneider, an attorney specializing in higher education law.
At U-Va., officials have come under considerable criticism for their response to the Aug. 11 torchlight march and rally. One student who was part of a circle of counterprotesters surrounded by white nationalists that night questioned why students weren’t warned about the march in advance. This student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she doesn’t feel safe, also wondered why police didn’t take faster action to protect students.
U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan has asked a group of deans and others to examine the university’s response. Some changes have already been implemented, including adding staff and police to bolster security, and requiring university police to be notified if people have been approved to carry open flames on campus. The general counsel’s office is considering changing policies about what activities can be banned, and is reviewing laws and policies regarding weapons on campus. A security firm will conduct a review of safety at U-Va.
But the campus remains tense.
“We don’t pretend this is over,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at U-Va. “The Nazis will be back to terrorize us.”