Texas A&M University and the University of Florida, the two colleges where white nationalist Richard Spencer was scheduled to speak in the coming weeks, have canceled Spencer’s planned appearance over safety concerns after this weekend’s deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Spencer was supposed to attend a “White Lives Matter” rally on September 11 at Texas A&M organized by an alt-right member named Preston Wiginton. School officials at first told the student newspaper they did not endorse the event in any capacity but would let it happen.
Likewise, University of Florida officials had previously said they were compelled by the First Amendment to rent university space to Spencer’s group for an event on September 12, even if they wholeheartedly disagreed with his views.
That all changed after the violent events this weekend in Charlottesville, which resulted in one counterprotester being killed by a white nationalist who rammed his car into a crowd.
Officials at Texas A&M announced their decision on Monday, saying, "Texas A&M's support of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech cannot be questioned. However, in this case circumstances and information relating to the event have changed and the risks of threat to life and safety compel us to cancel the event."
Meanwhile, University of Florida president Kent Fuchs released a statement Wednesday morning saying that safety concerns were paramount, especially after rhetoric was displayed on social media declaring Florida to be “the next battlefield.”
“Denying this request for university space is the safest and most responsible decision we can make,” Fuchs said in the statement:
I find the racist rhetoric of Richard Spencer and white nationalism repugnant and counter to everything the university and this nation stands for. That said, the First Amendment does not require a public institution to risk imminent violence to students and others. The likelihood of violence and potential injury — not the words or ideas — has caused us to take this action.
Due to the First Amendment, public universities can’t just bar controversial speakers, even if those speakers are self-proclaimed white nationalists like Spencer. Because universities are public institutions and meant to be a space for free debate, they have to prove that a particular speaker poses a threat to school safety.
That’s the argument schools in Texas and Florida are now making.
Colleges can probably bar white nationalists now — but not forever
The fact that protests in Virginia turned deadly may shield universities temporarily, said Michael Olivas, director of the Institute for Higher Education Law & Governance at the University of Houston Law Center. But it won’t allow colleges to bar white nationalist speakers forever, as long as they promise to abide by school regulations and safety rules.
“You have to have some good reason — surely Charlottesville provides that ground cover,” Olivas said. “You probably can’t postpone it forever or cancel it forever. That’s the nature of an open campus, of free exchange.”
He added that the actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville this weekend were clearly not an example of debate.
“I don’t think carrying torches through a town on a Saturday night is an attempt to engage in discourse; that’s a show of force,” he said. “It’s not clear how long that inoculates campuses from keeping undesirables off their premises.”
This isn’t the first time issues of free speech and white nationalism have surfaced. In April, Auburn University unsuccessfully tried to bar Spencer from speaking on campus, also citing potential safety concerns. A federal judge ruled in Spencer’s favor, saying there was no evidence he posed a safety threat.
“If you set yourself up as an open forum, you’ve got to take what comes,” Olivas said. “The rules are supposed to apply equally to people.”
The debate over free speech on college campuses also played out earlier this year at the University of California Berkley, where conservative writer Ann Coulter and right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos had events canceled amid violent protests on campus.
Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, recently told NPR’s Camila Domonoske he believes the latest incidents of schools canceling the alt-right events for safety reasons may be difficult to defend, given the events were weeks away.
"Generally when we're talking about shutting down speech because of threats of violence, it has to be an imminent threat of violence that is also likely to occur,” Shibley said.