Updated with clarification.
Self-proclaimed white nationalist Richard Spencer spoke at Auburn University in Alabama Tuesday night after a federal judge reversed the school’s cancellation of the event on First Amendment grounds.
He was greeted by protests that authorities said remained peaceful. A brief scuffle led to three arrests.
“I’m pretty happy with the way things have gone,” Auburn police chief Paul Register told the Plainsman, the student newspaper. “It could have been a lot worse. I attribute the peaceful nature to the students.”
Auburn police spokesman Capt. Lorenza Dorsey told the Associated Press three people were arrested for disorderly conduct, though it remains unclear if they were protesters or attendees of Spencer’s talk. A video released by AL.com showed a man with spiked hair and a bloody face on the ground, his hands cuffed behind his back.
Hundreds gathered before his talk around Foy Hall, where Spencer appeared, according to AL.com. The video showed a portion of this crowd chanting, “No alt-right. No KKK. No racist USA.” One protester carried a sign reading, “Fighting Fascism an American Tradition Since 1941.”
Spencer indeed cited race during his speech, saying, “The alt-right is about being a white person, being a European in the 21st century,” and later adding, “There’d be no history without us.”
Controversy surrounding Spencer’s appearance stretched back for a week before Tuesday’s talk, though. Many attempted to bar Spencer from speaking at Auburn and had succeeded until a federal judge intervened.
Cameron Padgett, identified in court documents as an Atlanta-area resident, paid $700 to rent out the 400-seat Foy Auditorium at Auburn for Spencer to speak. When the talk was announced, many student groups voiced concerns that Spencer — perhaps best known for shouting “Let’s party like it’s 1933” at a conference of white nationalists in Washington — might incite violence on campus.
Initially, Auburn released a statement that said, “We strongly deplore his views, which run counter to those of this institution. While his event isn’t affiliated with the university, Auburn supports the constitutional right to free speech.”
On Friday, though, Auburn canceled the event, posting this brief statement: “In consultation with law enforcement, Auburn canceled the Richard Spencer event scheduled for Tuesday evening based on legitimate concerns and credible evidence that it will jeopardize the safety of students, faculty, staff and visitors.”
The mere promise of divisive speakers like Spencer has previously ignited violent riots. The University of California Berkeley canceled an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos after protesters caused $100,000 worth of damage to its campus and threw fireworks, rocks and Molotov cocktails at buildings and police. At least six were injured. The protest at Auburn were a contrast to what happened at Berkeley.
“I’m not going to allow that to happen,” Spencer told the Plainsman, Auburn’s student newspaper, after the cancellation announcement. “Auburn is going to rue the day that they made this total bulls— decision. I will not back down. I will be there. This is going to be so much bigger than they ever imagined.”
Police, meanwhile, told the student paper, “Based on an assessment of possible civil unrest and criminal activity during a requested event, it is the opinion of the Auburn Police Division that allowing Mr. Richard Spencer to proceed with his appearance at Foy Hall on April 22 would pose a real threat to public safety.”
Padgett sued Auburn, which as a public institution must adhere to the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees. The lawsuit stated: “Various minority advocacy groups of Jews, Blacks and immigrants and left-wing/liberal groups demanded that no forum be afforded for the expression of views that contradict their own and which they find unhelpful for their identity group agendas and political agendas.”
Spencer previously advocated for an all-white country, stating in 2013, “We need an ethno-state, so that our people can ‘come home again,’ can live amongst family and feel safe and secure.”
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins in Montgomery, Ala., Tuesday barred Auburn from blocking Spencer, stating there was no evidence that he advocates violence.
“Discrimination on the basis of message content cannot be tolerated under the First Amendment,” he wrote in the ruling.
“This is a moment to savor,” Spencer said in a video shot outside the Montgomery courthouse and posted to Twitter after the ruling. “We just achieved a great victory. It was certainly a great victory for the alt-right, but it’s a great victory for free speech, for identifiable movements around the world, really.”
Auburn released a third statement, urging any protesters to remain peaceful.
Auburn University supports the rights and privileges afforded by the First Amendment. However, when the tenets of free speech are overshadowed by threats to the safety of our students, faculty, and staff, we have a responsibility to protect our campus and the men and women who unite our academic community. The decision to cancel the Richard Spencer event last week was informed by leadership from all of the university’s shared governance groups and the Auburn Police Division, all of whom articulated legitimate concerns for the safety and security of our campus.
This afternoon, a federal judge ruled that Auburn must allow Spencer to speak in the Foy Auditorium tonight. It is now more important than ever that we respond in a way that is peaceful, respectful, and maintains civil discourse.
Clarification: The original version of this article overstated the violence, which was brief, confined and involved a few people. The story has been updated to reflect that.
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