When a white nationalist spoke at Texas A&M University in December, school officials said they were duty-bound to tolerate free speech, even speech they considered repugnant.
A&M changed its policy later to bar outside people from using on-campus conference rooms without sponsorship of a university-sanctioned group. No such requirement applies to outdoor events at several free-speech zones on the College Station campus, but the university cited safety concerns Monday in canceling a far-right rally that had been booked through its events staff for next month.
Preston Wiginton, who had organized the rally and lined up use of Rudder Plaza in the heart of campus without a university sponsor, told the American-Statesman on Tuesday that half of him wants to sue A&M and the other half doesn’t want to bother because “A&M, the Texas Legislature and many white people have proven to me that whites accept their own demise.” Later in the day, he said he is pursuing a lawsuit and might walk down a public street through campus with activists and others who had planned to attend the “White Lives Matter” rally that was canceled.
Whether A&M’s cancellation of the event was a violation of Wiginton’s right to free speech would ultimately be up to the courts. But school officials who gathered in President Michael Young’s office on Monday, where the decision was made, were well aware that pulling the plug on the rally could expose the university to legal attack, according to two well-placed sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
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In April, a federal judge in Alabama barred Auburn University from blocking white nationalist Richard Spencer from speaking, saying there was no evidence that he advocates violence. Auburn had canceled the event, citing safety concerns, after initially saying it could go forward as an exercise of free speech.
Spencer had been among speakers lined up for the now-canceled event at A&M. He was also the speaker at the December event in A&M’s Memorial Student Center, where he told an audience of more than 400 people that “America, at the end of the day, belongs to white men … This country does belong to white people — culturally, socially and politically.”
Rudder Plaza is one of several outdoor free-speech zones on campus.
“I don’t care if Black Lives Matter is there or if the American Communist Party is there. Why am I not allowed there?” Wiginton said.
A&M’s news release Monday — its only official statement on the matter — cited several reasons, including safety concerns in the wake of race-related violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and disruption of class schedules and pedestrian and bus movement.
“You can’t say that because the Charlottesville rally turned violent, another group’s rally will turn violent because it shares the same viewpoint,” said Samantha Harris, vice president of policy research for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based group that advocates for free speech and religious liberty at colleges and universities.
The argument that anticipated disruption is grounds for cancellation doesn’t hold legal water, said Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has written extensively on free speech.
“The anticipation of what might happen is not necessarily what will happen. It’s easy to say we’re afraid of disruption to avoid saying we don’t want the message,” Stone said, adding that opponents of marches for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights have also employed such tactics.
“The question is to what extent could the university reasonably control the disruption,” he said. “It could limit the size of the event, limit the hours, put up barriers. Fundamentally, it’s the responsibility of the university to do whatever it can reasonably do to let the event take place. They do have a right to prevent events where there is a clear and present danger, which usually means waiting until the moment is upon you. You might have to use tear gas or whatever you have to do to disperse people. You can’t prove it up in advance.”
Stone said universities are permitted to require outside groups to be sponsored by student, faculty or staff organizations before securing permission for an event on campus. The University of Texas mandates such sponsorship, whether the events are indoors or outdoors, said spokesman J.B. Bird.