The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill denied a request by white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak on campus, the latest public university to turn down his National Policy Institute after violence at the University of Virginia.
Earlier this month, Spencer led hundreds of torch-carrying white nationalists and white supremacists on a march through U-Va.’s campus in Charlottesville, where they shouted slurs and racist chants and scuffled with a small group of counterprotesters. The next day, at a separate rally to which Spencer had been invited, the conflict turned deadly. A woman was killed and many were injured when a driver rammed a car into a crowd of counterprotesters. Two police officers died when their helicopter crashed.
Since then, several public universities have denied Spencer’s request to speak on campus, saying they are committed to free speech but are worried that such an event would pose an imminent threat to campus safety.
“I am deeply saddened and disturbed that the violent and virulent rhetoric being espoused by extremist groups has jeopardized the ability of campuses to promote robust dialogue and debate about important issues while ensuring public safety,” said Carol L. Folt, UNC’s chancellor.
Spencer did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but when asked about a similar decision last week, he said public universities were on shaky legal ground when they use a “heckler’s veto,” citing safety concerns to suppress free speech. He has also said universities are places for challenging ideas and national conversations.
This spring, a federal judge cited the First Amendment when he overturned Auburn University’s decision to cancel a speech by Spencer.
The judge was assessing the likelihood of a threat to safety at that time, said Michael A. Olivas, who teaches immigration and higher education law at the University of Houston Law Center. A U.S. Supreme Court decision on speech on campus decades ago essentially held that if universities present themselves as open to all speakers, unless there is an imminent threat they cannot deny people’s right to speak, he said.
Penn State, Michigan State, Texas A&M universities and the University of Florida have all denied event requests by Spencer’s institute in the weeks after Charlottesville.
On Wednesday night, W. Kent Fuchs, the president of the University of Florida, said, “We are prepared to vigorously defend our decision. The safety of our students, faculty and staff is our highest priority.”
Here are Folt’s remarks in full:
Dear Campus Community:
Because of serious concerns about campus safety, I have declined a request from the National Policy Institute to rent space for Richard Spencer to speak on campus.
I made this decision after consultation with UNC Police and local and state law enforcement agencies who have thoroughly assessed the risks such an event could bring to Carolina. Our basis for this decision is the safety and security of the campus community — we are not willing to risk anyone’s safety in light of these known risks.
I am deeply saddened and disturbed that the violent and virulent rhetoric being espoused by extremist groups has jeopardized the ability of campuses to promote robust dialogue and debate about important issues while ensuring public safety.
One way to counter this is to promote and encourage our campus community to engage in constructive conversation. I hope as many of you as possible will help kick off this year’s Carolina Conversations on Wednesday, Sept. 6, with a program called “The First Amendment and Free Speech at UNC.” This discussion will explore topics including what the First Amendment protects at a public university. More details are available at the UNC Diversity and Inclusion website.
Thank you for your attention to this important update.
Carol L. Folt