Pennsylvania State University has denied a request by white nationalist Richard B. Spencer to speak on campus, the university announced Tuesday.
It was the fourth university to deny him a platform in recent days, citing security concerns after a “Unite the Right” rally which featured him as a speaker turned violent in Virginia.
Earlier this month, hundreds of Spencer’s followers marched through the University of Virginia’s campus carrying torches and shouting white-nationalist slogans, the beginning of an ideological clash that turned fatal the next day in Charlottesville when a man drove into a crowd of people protesting white supremacy, killing one woman and injuring many others. Two police officers also died when their helicopter crashed.
Spencer, who is president of the National Policy Institute, had asked to speak at Penn State in the fall.
Penn State’s president, Eric Barron, said in a written statement that Spencer’s views are “abhorrent and contradictory to our University’s values” but that the institution fully supports the right to free speech. However, he said, “the First Amendment does not require our University to risk imminent violence.” He said police had determined the event was “a major security risk,” and that risk, not the content of the speech, was the reason for denying the request.
In the days after the Charlottesville rally, other universities have made similar decisions. The University of Florida, for example, denied a request by the National Policy Institute to rent space on campus in September after assessing potential risk and social-media statements such as “The Next Battlefield is in Florida.”
Last week, Texas A&M University denied a “white lives matter” rally, organized by a former student named Preston Wiginton who said he was inspired by the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. Wiginton had invited Spencer to speak at the event.
Michigan State University also denied a request by Spencer’s group to rent space on campus for an event in September.
“They’re using what’s known as the ‘heckler’s veto,'” Spencer said. “They’re citing safety concerns as a way to suppress free speech. Legally that just doesn’t hold water. …
“There’s a very recent federal decision involving me and Auburn that is clear and unambiguous.”
In April, a federal judge reversed Auburn University’s cancellation of a Spencer event, saying there was no evidence that he advocated violence and that discrimination based on the content of the speech could not be tolerated under the First Amendment. A brief scuffle at the event led to three arrests for disorderly conduct.
Spencer said these large institutions with massive endowments and budgets and their own police forces don’t really have safety concerns. “They are using this as an excuse to suppress speech — and they know it.”
Here is Barron’s statement in full:
In light of the recent violence and tragedy in Charlottesville, Penn State has evaluated a request for Richard Spencer, who is president of the National Policy Institute, to speak on the University Park campus this fall.
I disagree profoundly with the content that has been presented publicly about this speaker’s views which are abhorrent and contradictory to our University’s values. There is no place for hatred, bigotry or racism in our society and on our campuses.
As stated last week, Penn State is an institution of higher education, and fully supports the right of free speech and encourages its expression in thoughtful and respectful ways, even when we strongly disagree with the opinions expressed. But the First Amendment does not require our University to risk imminent violence.
After critical assessment by campus police, in consultation with state and federal law enforcement officials, we have determined that Mr. Spencer is not welcome on our campus, as this event at this time presents a major security risk to students, faculty, staff and visitors to campus. It is the likelihood of disruption and violence, not the content, however odious, that drives our decision.
As we enter the new semester with a national climate of great uncertainty, Penn State continues to foster an inclusive climate for all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, genders and other differences. Our University strives to create an environment where everyone can teach, learn and live in an atmosphere of safety and mutual respect.
Eric J. Barron
Penn State President