University of Michigan advances plans to host white nationalist Richard Spencer
The University of Michigan is moving forward with plans to potentially host an event featuring white nationalist Richard Spencer after facing legal pressure from his booking agent to let them speak on campus.
“After consulting widely with many members of our community, I made the difficult decision to begin discussions with Richard Spencer’s group to determine whether he will be allowed to rent space to speak on the University of Michigan campus,” UM President Mark Schlissel said in a statement Tuesday evening.
“If we cannot assure a reasonably safe setting for the event, we will not allow it to go forward,” Mr. Schlissel added.
Several public universities have refused to host events featuring Mr. Spencer, president and director of the National Policy Institute think tank, citing safety and security concerns raised in the wake of his previous appearances and the protests they’ve provoked.
Cameron Padgett, a Georgia State University who arranges Mr. Spencer’s speaking engagements, asked UM on Oct. 27 for permission to rent a publicly available room on campus to host an event where the two can discuss the alt-right, “a Eurocentric political ideology which advocates the preservation of national identity, a return to traditional Western values and advances European racial interests,” according to his attorney, Kyle Bristow.
Three weeks later, Mr. Bristow wrote UM administrators, threatening to sue the school unless it green-lighted the request by 5 p.m. on Nov. 24.
“My foremost priority is ensuring the safety of everyone at this university,” Mr. Schlissel responded Tuesday evening, less than 72 hours before Mr. Bristow’s deadline. “However as a public university, the law and our commitment to free speech forbid us from declining a speaker based on the presumed content of speech. But we can and will impose limits on time, place and manner of a speaking engagement to protect the safety of our UM community.
“Let me be clear,” Mr. Schlissel said. “UM has not invited this individual to our campus, nor is anyone in our community sponsoring him. His representatives made a request to rent space on our campus for him to speak. We are legally prohibited from blocking such requests based solely on the content of that speech, however sickening it is.”
Mr. Bristow said he has agreed to give the school until 5 p.m. on Dec. 8 to make a final decision before filling suit.
“There will be no further extensions,” Mr. Bristow tweeted late Tuesday.
Mr. Spencer, 39, has presided over the National Policy Institute since 2011, but he first gained notoriety last November after he was greeted with Nazi-styled salutes while speaking at the group’s annual conference. He had been scheduled to speak at the Aug. 12 “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, but his appearance was cancelled when participants including neo-Nazis and fellow white nationalists began brawling with counterprotesters before the event got underway.
One person was killed and 19 others injured when an Ohio man, James Alex Fields, drove an automobile into a crowd of people protesting white supremacists later that afternoon, according to police. Mr. Fields was subsequently charged with second-degree murder and multiple other felonies in connection with the incident and is currently scheduled to be tried in 2018.
Mr. Padgett has attempted to rent space at several public colleges for Mr. Spencer to speak at in the aftermath of the Charlottesville rally and has initiated legal action in recent months against a handful of institutions that have denied his requests on account of security concerns, including Pennsylvania State University, Ohio State University and Michigan State University, among others.
The University of Florida reluctantly agreed to host a speaking engagement featuring Mr. Spencer on Oct. 19 — his first public appearance since “Unite the Right” — but said it would spend $600,000 on security costs. Police ultimately made five arrests connected to his appearance at the university’s Gainesville campus, including three attendees charged in a shooting that happened about an hour afterwards.