"The lesson is right in front of our noses": Comparing responses to Spencer's college visits

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 - 5:34pm

The “college tour” of Neo-Nazi and white supremacist Richard Spencer will possibly include a stop at the University of Michigan, eliciting outraged reactions from students, faculty and staff from both sides of the political sphere.

Conservative speakers have regularly been using college campuses this year as platforms through which to put forth their agendas. From Milo Yiannopoulos in Berkeley, Calif., to Charles Murray at the University earlier this semester, students and administration have been in conflict over whether these controversial figures should be allowed to speak on campus. With Spencer, who is banned from several European countries, there is the fear of violence to follow him.

This article is part three of a series in which The Daily looks at universities similar to the University of Michigan on the issue of reacting in a tense campus climate. As the university administration and students face their own numerous bias incidents, The Daily will look at other schools to compare incidents, administrative response and student activism, whether these incidents result from a difference in religion, culture, politics or policies.

University President Mark Schlissel announced Nov. 21 the University planned to proceed with Spencer’s request to speak on campus, on the condition it could ensure him a safe setting. The decision to go into talks with Spencer was confirmed at an emergency meeting for the University’s Board of Regents.

Schlissel’s reasons for the decision were trifold. He explained the University cannot restrict the content of speech, based on the First Amendment; denying Spencer would result in more public attention given to Spencer; and free speech is fundamental to democratic society — an attribute the University must protect. 

Kyle Bristow — an attorney for Cameron Padgett, a Georgia State University student submitting requests for Spencer to speak on multiple campuses — tweeted Oct. 27: “This evening @CameronVPadgett requested to rent a room at @UMichfor @RichardBSpencer to speak. Your move, @DrMarkSchlissel.” Rick Fitzgerald, assistant vice president for public affairs, confirmed Oct. 31 the University was made aware of Spencer’s request to speak.

Stop Spencer at the University of Michigan — a coalition that formed in response to the request — posted on Facebook in early November, saying though it knows Schlissel and many administrators do not want Spencer to come, “they have failed to acknowledge the severity of the situation and have yet to say no to Spencer.” The group used the hashtag #HailNotHeil.

Nov. 17, they posted a link to an article from the Detroit Free Press, explaining Bristow would give the University until Nov. 24 to decide if Spencer could speak, or face a lawsuit.

The night of Schlissel’s announcement, the group called on the University community to protest the decision. Nov. 25, it called for a week of action, using the hashtag #StopSpencer. Subsequently, during the week of Nov. 27, student protesters participated in speak-outsteach-ins and strikes, calling on the administration to deny Spencer.

The University has yet to decide on a safe setting and time for Spencer to speak on campus. Although the threat of lawsuit has been delayed until Friday, it is uncertain if it will allow such. 

In an email to The Daily, LSA senior Hoai An Pham, the press coordinator for the Stop Spencer at the University of Michigan coalition, wrote the administration has not made any effort to ensure the safety of students. 

“During our week of action, which called for the administration to take action, they only issued a statement that they did not support the protests (only the teach ins), again without offering anything productive,” she wrote. “There has been no action taken by the administration to support students.”

Furthermore, Pham emphasized she believes the statements made by the administration have been lackluster.  

“While the administration thinks that simply saying that it does not stand for Spencer's ideologies is enough, that is an inactive and bystander response,” she wrote. “It is easy to say that you do not agree with Spencer. It is harder to admit that in allowing him on campus, you are placing marginalized students in an incredibly dangerous situation. A statement against white supremacy does not stop a bullet from being shot into a crowd, as has happened with Spencer and his supporters.”

“Spencer has already scored a victory”

History lecturer Anne Berg, who spoke at one of the #StopSpencer teach-ins, wrote in an email to The Daily she was not sure why the University is taking its current position.

“I suspect it is much for the same reason that Florida allowed Spencer to appear on campus – both Florida and our own institution have essentially bowed their head and accepted the terms of the debate set by Spencer and his team, they have been complicit with Spencer’s insistence that this is an issue of free speech rather than one of violent threats and dangers to student safety,” she wrote. “In that respect Spencer has already scored a victory.”

To Berg, the debate surrounding Spencer’s appearances are incorrectly attributed to free speech, rather than the violence rhetoric within Spencer’s “ideas.” She said his denial of people and their right to exist was very much a threat.

“Spencer’s platform denies the right to exist for Black people and people of color more generally. Accordingly, the mere presence of people of color seems to be taken as a provocation by many of Spencer’s supporters and accordingly they feel entitled and emboldened to follow up on Spencer’s “ideas” with their fists, cars and guns,” she explained.

Schlissel, in a school-wide email, emphasized his disgust for Spencer and his beliefs. This has been reflected in other schools as well.

In December 2016, Spencer spoke at Texas A&M University. According to an article from The Battalion — the university’s student newspaper — Spencer was greeted with applause and boos. He was asked to speak on campus by Preston Wiginton, a former student, amid negative reactions from the campus community. The university’s president, in fact, endorsed several guest speakers who came to campus to “counter” Spencer.

At a protest during the event, Texas A&M University student Aaron Blasband, the student president of Texas A&M Hillel, said he opposed neo-Nazism.

“I’m here because I am against white supremacy,” he said. “I am against neo-Nazism as a Jew. My grandparents were in the Holocaust and a large majority of my family was killed in the Holocaust from very similar thinking to this. So when something is going on like this it makes me want to go out there and spread love more than anything else.”

Alt-right organizers then scheduled a “white lives matter” event to take place on Sept. 11, 2017 at the university; Spencer was supposed to speak at the event. However, in a press release, the university administration canceled the event due to safety concerns.

Aug. 16, Janine Sikes, assistant vice president of public affairs at the University of Florida, said in a statement the university would deny Spencer his request to rent space, following concerns for campus safety. However, once it was faced with a lawsuit, the university relented and allowed Spencer to speak on campus in October.

U-F President Kent Fuchs said in a video announcement the university’s values do not align with those of Spencer. He encouraged students to not attend the October event.

“The values of our universities are not shared by Mr. Spencer, the National Policy Institute or his followers,” he said. “Our campuses are places where people from all races, origins and religions are welcomed and are treated with love. … I urge you to do two things. First, do not provide Mr. Spencer and his followers the spotlight they are seeking. I urge everyone to stay away from Phillips Center October 19. Second, although I urge you to avoid the Spencer event, I ask that you do not let Mr. Spencer's message of hate and racism go unchallenged. Make it clear that messages of hate on our campus are contrary to our values.”

In an article from the Florida Alligator — the University of Florida’s student publication — Oggi Parry, a senior at the university, protested Spencer at the October event. He said he voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, but he wanted to show Trump supporters do not align with Spencer. He wrapped his body in an American flag and wore red, white and blue sunglasses.

“Conservative views are not (Spencer’s) views,” he said. “We are not with him.”

Back in Michigan, University Regent Mark Bernstein (D) said to deny Spencer would be an immoral act of the First Amendment. Schlissel echoed similar upholding values of the First Amendment in his school-wide email.

“What is surprising and disappointing to me is that U-M is upholding the terms of the debate even though Charlottesville can now no longer be claimed as an isolated case or an exception. We see a pattern,” Berg said. “And the pattern is not one of ‘speech’ and ‘exchange of ideas’ but a cycle of threats and protests against such threats, which unfortunately have now been repeatedly been met with violence.” 

To Berg, the fact that Florida spent $600,000 in security for the Spencer event is an indication of what administrators are expecting. 

“This is not a debate about free speech. From Spencer and his supporters’s perspective, this is a debate over how much racial violence our country is willing to put up with.” she wrote. “For the University of Michigan, the issue is one of students’ physical and emotional safety, of their ability to learn, to study and engage with ideas, rather than defend them and their classmates against threats to their very existence.”

Pham wrote the University should have tried to stop Spencer, regardless of whether there would be a lawsuit. 

“We are protesting the administration because despite our eleven billion dollar endowment, and one of the best legal teams in the country they have not done anything to try to stop Spencer,” she wrote. “If schools with less resources than we have were able to deny Spencer, then we should have been able to as well.” 

The possibility of being sued

Meanwhile, other universities have completely denied Spencer and currently face lawsuits — Michigan State University, Ohio State University and Pennsylvania State University are among them. 

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Design by Casey Tin

 

Aug. 17, a statement from the Office of the President at Michigan State declared it would deny the National Policy Institute’s request to rent space; the institute being a white supremacist think tank led by Spencer.

“After consultation with law enforcement officials, Michigan State University has decided to deny the National Policy Institute’s request to rent space on campus to accommodate a speaker,” the statement read. “This decision was made due to significant concerns about public safety in the wake of the tragic violence in Charlottesville last weekend. While we remain firm in our commitment to freedom of expression, our first obligation is to the safety and security of our students and our community.”

In an article from The State News, Jason Porter, an MSU graduate student, said he wished the university would have taken a stance sooner, but is happy with its decision.

"I wish our university would have taken a stance yesterday and said this would not be allowed to take place, but ultimately, I'm satisfied with the fact that they did respond somewhat quickly to this crisis and it was great to see he will not be speaking on this campus because he does not deserve a platform on this campus," Porter said. "There's a fine line between free speech and hate speech and this group is clearly portraying hate speech and that does not have a place on Michigan State's campus."

Michigan State now faces a lawsuit for denying constitutional rights, according to The Washington Post. It forces Michigan State to reverse its decision and charges the university $75,000 in damages. According to The Washington Post, MSU spokesman Kent Cassella wrote in an email the university is aware of the lawsuit and highlighted the need to protect students.

MSU has also be ordered by a federal judge to go into talks with a Spencer representative. 

Noelle Cohn is a junior in the James Madison College at Michigan State studying public policy. 

“Here, it hasn’t really been discussed a whole lot,” she said. “It’s not something that has really been anything big. They saw it got rejected. … I think, from my perspective, as someone who studies public policy, government, I’m big on free speech. I really haven’t looked into it because from my perspective, ignoring people like that is usually my first thought. If they’re going to speak, let them speak, but I think there is a big difference in what he’s saying than what is actually OK.”

She emphasized the concept of having the right to one’s opinion until it infringes on someone’s existence. She said freedom of speech is OK until it infringes on someone’s right to exist. 

“I think that’s the big difference with (Spencer),” she said. “It’s not just people disagreeing with him and him not having the right to speak. It’s the fact that his speech last year, ‘Hail Trump,’ was very reminiscent of what was happening in the 1930s, when genocide occurred, essentially. You have to look at, when does it threaten someone else’s existence and for Richard Spencer’s rhetoric, (that) does that.”

In terms of the lawsuit, Cohn said, she hasn’t heard much about it on campus.

“I think what you’re seeing right now is just the continued threat of people, whatever the far right is, the far left. … I think people are almost annoyed with it, they just don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “I think that’s a national consensus.”

Ohio State University also faces a lawsuit after denying Spencer the right to speak — the third time. Oct. 20, Ohio State announced Spencer’s request to use campus space Nov. 15 was denied, with no possibility of an alternate event date, according to The Lantern, Ohio State’s student newspaper.

In a letter reported by the Chicago Tribune, an OSU attorney explained in a letter the university consulted with law enforcement and considered Spencer’s appearance at the University of Florida when making its decision.  

“The University values freedom of speech,” the attorney wrote. “Nonetheless, the University has determined that it is not presently able to accommodate Mr. Padgett's request to rent space at the university due to substantial risks to public safety, as well as material and substantial disruption.”

The Lantern reports the lawsuit against OSU says the school should have no reason to believe Padgett or Spencer will “engage in and/or advocate offensive criminal misconduct should Spencer be permitted to speak on OSU’s campus in a room rented by (Padgett).”  

In August, Eric Barron, president of Pennsylvania State University, also denied Spencer’s request to speak on campus. 

“In light of the recent violence and tragedy in Charlottesville, Penn State has evaluated a request for Richard Spencer, who is president of the National Policy Institute, to speak on the University Park campus this fall,” he said in a statement. “I disagree profoundly with the content that has been presented publicly about this speaker's views which are abhorrent and contradictory to our University’s values. There is no place for hatred, bigotry or racism in our society and on our campuses.”

Penn State now faces a lawsuit as well. Similar to The Lantern, the Daily Collegian — Penn State’s student newspaper — reported Padgett claimed there is no reason to think Spencer and his supporters will engage in criminal misconduct.  

Pham wrote she believes the University should have taken on a lawsuit, instead of prioritizing avoiding a lawsuit over protecting students. 

“We certainly have the money and legal resources to do so,” Pham wrote. “Currently, they are saying that by letting Spencer come here, then we can control the narrative and ensure safety. On this campus alone, hate crimes occur on a regular basis, and Schlissel has never caught anyone, nor prevented any of these events from happening. If Schlissel cannot guarantee safety on a normal day, there is likewise no guarantee for student safety when he's bringing an actual white supremacist on this campus.”

Pham compared Spencer to Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray. She said, unlike them, Spencer has a very large following of supporters who have shown they will show up to hear him speak, and to incite violence. 

“Michigan alone has one of the largest civilian militias in the country, and there are multiple hate groups very close to campus,” she wrote. “Even if Schlissel had a handle on the hate crimes that happen on campus, he cannot control the state of Michigan.”

Berg wrote no matter how hard it is for students to build solidarity and consensus, it was important work.

“Putting important parts of one’s own agenda on the back-burner in favor of a lowest common denominator is hard work, both intellectually, socially and in terms of organization,” she wrote. “We need to continue along those lines to demonstrate to ourselves and the rest of the world that the opposition to racism, to white supremacy, to xenophobia, to violence is united and cannot be fractured.” 

Berg, who teaches culture in Germany from 1918 to 1945, wrote society now could learn more from history. 

“In Weimar Germany the authorities often actively collaborated with the right-wing militants who wanted to bring down the republic,” she wrote. “In Charlottesville the police stood silently in riot gear as neo-Nazis intimidated students. The lessons are right in front of our noses.”