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The University of Michigan has agreed to proceed with white supremacist Richard Spencer’s request to speak on campus if the University is able to ensure a safe setting for the event. University President Mark Schlissel announced the University will begin deliberations with Spencer’s team regarding time, place and nature of the event after convening an emergency Board of Regents’ meeting Tuesday night.
“We only today have finalized plans for how we will proceed on Richard Spencer’s request to speak on the University of Michigan campus,” Schlissel said.
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the University has not determined a timeline for negotiations. In a tweet following Schlissel’s announcement, Kyle Bristow — an attorney for Cameron Padgett, the Georgia State University student submitting requests for Spencer — tweeted his deadline for the University’s final response has been extended to Dec. 8, at penalty of a lawsuit. After refusing to allow Spencer on campus earlier this year, Michigan State University officials are currently engaged in a legal mediation with Bristow.
Fitzgerald said Bristow’s ultimatum will have no effect on the University’s decisions.
Schlissel outlined three components of his decision: The University can impose restrictions on the circumstances of the event based on the First Amendment, but not content; denying the request would attract more public attention to Spencer; and protecting free speech is key in maintaining a democratic society.
Schlissel and University spokespeople emphasized repeatedly student safety is the administrators’ priority. Close to 75 students at the meeting jeered the officials, holding up signs and yelling.
Though the Board could not act in an official capacity on Schlissel’s action, many weighed in. University Regent Denise Ilitch (D) was the only regent to contend the president’s decision.
“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.”
During public comments, every speaker — and many more students speaking out of turn during the meeting — argued Spencer’s appearance on campus is an inherent threat to safety.
Nursing graduate student Vidhya Aravind noted the proximity and strength of white supremacist groups near the University, saying an event with Spencer on campus would undoubtedly attract them.
“There’s nothing to be learned from his viewpoint, nor can we learn anything from challenging it,” she said. “This dehumanization validates and affirms the views of hate groups like Identity Evropa, who has a base of organization within a half hour of the University. Bringing him will embolden local white supremacists to continue to violent protesting, and will risk physical violence or murder.”
Social Work student Brittney Williams pointed out the ways in which Spencer’s views were an attack on her identity as a Black, bisexual woman — referencing his beliefs that Black people do not deserve to exist. Williams noted it was important for the Board to consider the gravity of allowing Spencer into a place many students considered their home.
“A big part of the University’s brand is that for its students, U of M is home. And for many of us, especially out-of-state and international students and students with limited social and family supports, it is home,” Williams said. “For those on the Board who share my identities, or any identities which Spencer seeks to attack or eradicate, consider what your response would be to him showing up at your house. To him inciting violence, demeaning the core of your identity, calling for your death — in your living room.”
LSA senior Zoe Proegler, a University Unions employee and president of the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program, brought up in her speech potentially challenging, or threatening, implications for student employees asked to set up for a potential event. After the meeting, she said she found herself even more frustrated by the lack of detail provided.
Schlissel stated in his remarks “once a time and place have been identified, (the University) will work with our community to host these types of (counterprogramming) events.” Without ample notice, Proegler said, students may not be able to seek protection, or organize in general.
“There was no outline of support and resources provided to students,” she said. “Regardless of what the decision is going to be, we need a timeline or framework … and just shrugging your shoulders isn’t helpful.”
University Regent Mark Bernstein (D) supported Schlissel’s decision, stating while he detested Spencer’s views, protecting Spencer’s First Amendment rights is paramount. “The only thing worse than Richard Spencer being on our campus,” Bernstein said, “is stopping Richard Spencer being on our campus.
“We could do the easy thing. That’s what Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State did. They were not courageous. They were cowards,” he continued. “We could deny Richard Spencer, everyone would celebrate, this board would be cheered, President Schlissel would be applauded, but we would be dancing on our own graves. And on our tombstones would read: Here lies the University of Michigan, afraid to do the right and difficult thing. It compromised its commitment to free speech and died.”
The announcement of the emergency meeting was sent via email from Schlissel, who noted there would be “an announcement regarding the request to rent space from Richard Spencer.” LSA senior Anushka Sarkar, president of Central Student Government, also tweeted the announcement with a link for community members to sign up to speak during public comment.
Many members of the audience expressed their displeasure with the lack of notice the University provided about the meeting and the lack of seating inside, which forced dozens of people to wait outside the meeting room. Rackham student Chris Campbell, secretary of the Graduate Employees’ Organization, said the difficulty people faced in speaking at and attending the meeting itself represented a lack of free speech.
“I want to acknowledge how many of the people in this room can say what I’m about to say as well as I can or better — that I’m here as a white man from the labor union because this event was announced mere hours in advance,” he said. “When the Regents and when the University administration schedule this meeting two days before a holiday, in a room that is not sufficient to allow everyone who wishes to speak here, behind a public comment process that is hidden in a link in a large page of text, the University of Michigan administration is not valuing the free speech rights of the people in this community.”
The prospect of Spencer coming to speak on campus first arose at the end of October, sparking student protest and statements from several student organizations. Many students changed their Facebook profile pictures to “Hail, not Heil” against Spencer’s neo-Nazi rhetoric.
In an email obtained by The Daily dated Nov. 7, University Regent Ron Weiser (R) expressed concerns surrounding allowing Spencer to come to campus.
“Spencer is a disgusting and dangerous man. This has been expressed by many members of the University community,” Weiser wrote. “I hope we are successful in keeping him off Campus.”
In a previous email to The Daily, University Regent Andrea Fischer Newman (R) — who is also the senior vice president for government affairs for Delta Air Lines — wrote she “would be happy to defend a lawsuit” against allowing Spencer to come.
Both Weiser and Newman said they supported Schlissel’s decision to proceed with Spencer’s request, however.
“As a CEO and business leader, I believe it’s critical to support the decisions of a chief executive — in this case the president of this great university,” Weiser said. “As a human being and Jew whose family was murdered by the Nazis, I reject his hateful views with every fiber of my being. However, the University has a fundamental duty to fulfill our obligations under the Constitution of the United States of America, namely the first amendment right to free speech, even if that speech is hateful.”
LSA junior Amanda Delekta, vice president of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, said the University did not necessarily have to enter a lawsuit with Spencer to send a message of rejection, which she said the Board did successfully.
“I think we can send that message in a lot less expensive way,” she said. “I think that hearing each and every single Regent articulate their rejection of his speech is really profound, and I think that that’s something that should resonate with students.”
“I think you heard the president,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re moving forward.”
Correction appended: An earlier version of this article misstated Williams and Padget’s school affiliations