Last week, the University of Michigan administration responded to Richard Spencer’s request to speak on campus, and moved forward to negotiate the event. Today, in protest of the administration refusing to deny the request, students hundreds of walked out of their classes and rallied in the Diag, then marched into other classrooms on campus.
A few hundred students and community members gathered in the University of Michigan Diag at about noon on Wednesday, and after a short rally, marched to the Chemistry Building, Mason Hall and the Fish Bowl in Angell Hall. The rally is part of the #StopSpencer week of action, which includes teach-ins and other forms of protest.
“On Wednesday, November 29 2017, Stop Spencer at the University of Michigan is organizing a student walk out at 11:45 AM in response to the failure of University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel and the Regents to deny white supremacist Richard Spencer’s request to speak on campus,” the Facebook event reads. “We cannot learn in an environment that is constantly disrupting our learning by threatening our safety and dehumanizing us.”
On Nov. 21, the University said it was going to proceed with Spencer’s request to speak on campus, given the administration can ensure the safety of students. In an emergency meeting of the University’s Board of Regents, University President Mark Schlissel laid out “three components” to the decision: the safety of students, protecting free speech in a democratic society, and that denying the request would give more attention to Spencer and his cause. Schlissel repeatedly said safety must be guaranteed in order for the event to take plcae.
“This week is not just about protesting Spencer coming here, it’s about protesting white supremacy and it’s about protesting the administration’s lackluster response, inactive, bystander response to a literal white supremacist coming on this campus,” Pham said. “The thing is here too, on this campus every single day, on a regular basis we have hate crimes that are coming.”
Spencer’s representative first requested he speak on the University’s campus at the end of October. This request came after Spencer had requested to speak at several other universities, including Michigan State University and University of Florida. The University of Florida initially denied a request from Spencer, but after being threatened with a lawsuit, relented and allowed Spencer to speak in October.
On Aug. 17, a statement released from the Office of the President at Michigan State University declared MSU would deny the National Policy Institute’s request to rent space on campus. The NPI is a white nationalist think tank led by Spencer. MSU now faces a lawsuit for not allowing Spencer to speak.
The lawyer representing Spencer threatened to sue the University earlier in November if it did not accommodate Spencer’s request, giving the administration a week deadline to make a decision. This deadline has since been extended until Dec. 8.
Previously, University Regent Ron Weiser (R) said in an email Spencer was “a dangerous and disgusting man.”
University Regent Denise Illitch (D), however, was the only regent opposing the decision last week, stating while free speech is a concern of hers, the violence that accompanies Spencer must be considered.
“Unfortunately, I do not agree with the University of Michigan administration,” she said. “While I am a staunch proponent of the First Amendment, and stand firmly in support of our constitution, I remain very concerned that it is unsafe to allow him to speak at the University of Michigan. Violence follows him wherever he goes.”
LSA senior Kim Truong, free speech should not justify the administration potentially allowing space on campus for Spencer to speak.
“So a lot of people cling on to the idea that we need to have people speak because we should welcome all ideas, but sometimes their ideas have proven to be really harmful over and over again,” Truong said. “Why do we need to keep listening to Nazis? If we give them a space, it’s saying that those ideas are valid and should be listened to.”
For LSA freshman Payton White, not walking out of class would be remaining complicit in Spencer coming to campus.
“I feel like if you’re not against someone like him, then you’re basically advocating for him so I couldn’t just sit in class,” White said. “Personally, if he comes to campus, my life isn’t going to change because if I give him attention that he wants and that’s exactly what he wants and this is exactly why he did all of this but I feel like if we as a group ignore him and don’t give him any attention, it would be more effective than actually coming and being violent or being negative about the whole situation.”
During the protest, a situation occurred in the Fishbowl where LSA junior Princess Felix challenged protesters, arguing it would not be fair to bar Spencer from speaking. If students didn’t like what he was saying, Felix said, they shouldn’t listen.
“If you’re not going to listen to people, then you don’t have a right to be heard. You listen to others, and you will be heard,” she said. “If he wants to kill people, then he will get arrested when he kills someone.”
Protesters retorted to Felix, defending their stance against Spencer’s presence. After most of the protesters left the Fishbowl, some stayed behind to continue talking with Felix.
It is still unclear when or where Spencer might be allowed to speak. In an exclusive interview with President Schlissel Tuesday, he stressed safety as a deciding factor.
“What the law allows us to consider is the time and the place and the manner of speaking,” Schlissel said. “So for example, it would be very easy for us to say no if Mr. Spencer insisted on speaking on the Diag at 11 in the morning on a class day with a bullhorn, right? Because he would disrupt everyone’s class. So, using that as an example, what we would look for is a time of the day and time of the year and a location that our professional security people tell us is the safest possible way to do this. It would be silly to discuss these things in public and these are things that we want to discuss with Mr. Spencer’s representatives to figure out whether we can do something that’s safe.”
This is a developing story. Check back at michigandaily.com for more details.