A lawsuit against Michigan State University seeks to force the school to let white nationalist Richard Spencer speak on campus, claiming school officials’ decision to deny his supporters permission to rent event space violated their constitutional rights.
The case will be closely watched, since several public universities denied requests to allow Spencer to hold events in the days after a violent confrontation in Virginia.
Last month, Spencer and hundreds of white nationalists and white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia’s campus with torches and angrily confronted a small group of counterprotesters. It was the beginning of a 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.
In the days that followed, five public universities declined to allow events featuring Spencer, who is president of the National Policy Institute, saying such events would pose an imminent threat to the campus.
Spencer did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon, but he said recently that the schools were improperly using a heckler’s veto — letting opponents effectively shut down an event and citing safety concerns to suppress free speech.
In April, a federal judge reversed Auburn University’s cancellation of a Spencer event, finding no evidence that Spencer advocated violence, and ruling that a decision based on the content of the speech was a violation of the First Amendment.
Cameron Padgett, a 23-year-old senior at Georgia State University who is organizing Spencer’s college speaking tour, filed the lawsuit. He is described in the suit as supporting “Identitarian philosophy … a Eurocentric political ideology which advocates the preservation of national identity and a return to traditional Western values.”
The lawsuit contends, “people who are politically left-of-center find Spencer’s and NPI’s constitutionally protected political views to be objectionable. Radical leftists affiliated with the Antifa political movement have previously violently attacked Spencer and Spencer’s supporters at venues at which Spencer and Spencer’s supporters peacefully assembled with the explicit goal of shutting down Spencer’s events.”
The lawsuit, filed Sunday night in U.S. District Court in western Michigan, asks for a preliminary injunction forcing Michigan State to reverse its decision and $75,000 in damages.
Michigan State spokesman Kent Cassella said in an email that the university is aware of the lawsuit, and added a brief statement: “Michigan State University decided to deny the National Policy Institute’s request to rent space on campus to accommodate a speaker after consultation with law enforcement officials. The decision was made due to significant concerns about public safety in the wake of the tragic violence in Charlottesville. While we remain firm in our commitment to freedom of expression, our first obligation is to the safety and security of our students and our community.”
Spencer had also asked to speak at the University of Florida on Sept. 12, but the university, after assessing statements on social media soon after Charlottesville such as “The Next Battlefield is in Florida,” denied the request.
Gary Edinger, an attorney representing Padgett and Spencer in Florida, said Tuesday afternoon that he believes they can reach a resolution with the university. “Mr. Padgett has received assurances that Mr. Spencer’s speaking engagement will go forward on a different date, but most likely in the same venue: the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on campus. We have not yet established a new date or terms for the speech,” he wrote in an email.
A spokeswoman for the University of Florida, Janine Sikes, said Tuesday that she had no update. When asked on Friday if the university was committed to allowing Spencer to speak on campus, university spokesman Steve Orlando said they stood by a statement made earlier that day:
The university is committed to upholding the First Amendment right to free speech and civil discourse, and we have a history of hosting controversial speakers on campus to this end. We reaffirmed our decision to deny the National Policy Institute’s request, which was for a speaking event on campus Sept. 12, due to concerns about safety following the events in Charlottesville. At this time, we have not been presented with a new request for a future date. However, should that occur, we will use the same careful deliberation and consideration of safety and security factors that we did previously and make that decision accordingly to meet our legal obligations.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.