The University of Michigan will consider allowing white nationalist Richard Spencer to hold an event on its campus, the latest public school grappling with how to balance constitutional rights and campus safety with a speaker they didn’t invite and don’t want to host.
“His views, and those of his organization and its followers, are antithetical to everything we stand for at the University of Michigan,” the school’s president, Mark Schlissel, wrote in a letter to the campus Tuesday. But he also wrote, “We are legally prohibited from blocking such requests based solely on the content of that speech, however sickening it is.”
He said university administrators would begin discussions with Spencer’s National Policy Institute about holding an event at the state flagship school. “If we cannot assure a reasonably safe setting for the event, we will not allow it to go forward,” he said.
Last Friday, the attorney representing a supporter of Spencer, Cameron Padgett, wrote Schlissel.
“I am disgusted and dismayed that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is being flippantly disregarded by you and your colleagues because of the political viewpoint of the speakers who would attend the proposed event and the heckler’s veto which is being utilized by left-wing individuals who are detractors of Padgett and Spencer,” said Kyle Bristow, the attorney.
On Tuesday, the university’s board of regents held a special public meeting to discuss Spencer’s request.
His supporters have asked to rent space for events at several universities this fall, after he led a torchlight march in August through the University of Virginia that turned violent. Several schools denied his request, citing imminent safety concerns. The University of Florida allowed Spencer to speak, leading the state’s governor to declare a state of emergency before Spencer arrived on campus and forcing the school to absorb more than $500,000 in security costs.
After other universities in recent months denied Spencer’s request to make appearances, lawsuits were filed against Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State universities, seeking to force them to allow the white nationalist to speak.
Earlier this year, a federal judge overturned Auburn University’s decision to cancel a speech by Spencer, ruling the ban was unconstitutional because it was predicated on the content of the speech. The judge also found no evidence Spencer promoted violence.
The Michigan Daily, the student newspaper, showed a room full of students at the board of regents meeting Tuesday holding up handmade cardboard signs opposing Spencer, and quoted the Black Student Union on campus as demanding in an email that Schlissel deny the request: “Allowing such a person to speak on this campus is a threat to the physical and emotional safety of many students on campus. Too many times already have students of color been placed under emotional distress due to racist campus climate,” the black student group wrote, citing racist graffiti and Snapchats and white-supremacist fliers at the Ann Arbor campus.
In his letter later that evening, Schlissel wrote, “I personally detest and reject the hateful white supremacy and white nationalism expressed by Mr. Spencer as well as his racist, anti-Semitic and otherwise bigoted views, as do the regents and the entire leadership of this university. Many followers who show up at his rallies share his repugnant beliefs and should be shunned by our community.”
But the Michigan president said denying the request “would provide even more attention to the speaker and his cause, and allow him to claim a court victory.”
Spencer did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Bristow wrote in an email Wednesday that he had accepted the university leader’s request to extend the deadline until Dec. 8, but would not extend it again.
“On my watch the freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution will not be usurped by left-wing bureaucrats who cater to the juvenile and tyrannical threats of left-wing students,” he wrote, and reiterated his intention to sue if the university does not publicly agree to let Spencer speak there.
Many of the regents issued public statements.
“As a human being, and as a Jew, whose family was murdered by the Nazis, I reject his hateful views with every fiber of my being,” regent Ron Weiser wrote. “However, I believe that the university has a fundamental duty to fulfill our obligations under the Constitution of the state of Michigan and the Constitution of the United States of America, namely, the First Amendment right to free speech, even if that speech is hateful.”
Schlissel wrote, “As painful as it is to allow this speaker to rent our space, a democratic society without free speech is unimaginable.”
Read Bristow’s full letter here: UM Letter 11.17.17