Following Settlement, White Nationalist Will Speak at MSU Pavilion in March
As the Washington Post reported yesterday, National Policy Institute (NPI) President and white nationalist Richard Spencer will speak at the MSU Pavilion on Mt. Hope Road on March 5 from 4:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. This follows MSU’s earlier announcement that it would not allow Spencer to speak on campus, and the settlement yesterday of a First Amendment lawsuit.
Spencer had previously asked to rent speaking facilities at MSU, but on August 17, 2017, MSU Provost June Youatt issued a statement that, "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. 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."
A First Amendment suit against MSU’s Board of Trustees was almost immediately filed in U.S. District Court for Western Michigan, claiming that MSU’s refusal to rent speaking facilities to a Spencer supporter based on security concerns “violates free speech and other constitutional rights.”
The named plaintiff in the suit is Georgia State University student Cameron Padgett, the individual who sought to rent space for Spencer. The complaint asked for a preliminary injunction forcing MSU to reverse its decision, plus $75,000 in damages.
Yesterday’s settlement agreement says that MSU admits no liability in the First Amendment suit, that Padgett will pay the rental fee of $1,650 and also purchase liability insurance, and that MSU will pay for the necessary level of police presence during the March event. Padgett also agreed that no other rallies or “other similar event” will coincide with the stipulated appearance.
ELi spoke with ELPD’s Deputy Police Chief Steven Gonzalez back in September, when Spencer was originally scheduled to speak at MSU. Said Gonzalez, “with respect to the potential upcoming speaking engagement of Mr. Spencer on MSU's campus, the university police are taking the lead on the preparations as it lies within their jurisdiction. If this event occurs, MSU Police have asked for assistance from local police departments primarily for increased staffing.”
Gonzalez added that “the overarching aim is to ensure public safety while at the same time protecting individual constitutional rights.” He urged those interested in the event to be “calm and civil.”
The lawsuit on First Amendment grounds did not come as a surprise when it was filed. As we reported in August, nationally-recognized constitutional law scholar Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago said that MSU had put itself in a “difficult position” because it offered space for rent, and “cannot discriminate on the basis of viewpoint.”
Will Creeley, Senior Vice President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (The FIRE) supported Stone’s statement, saying that “Public universities that permit off-campus, uninvited speakers to rent or use university facilities or properties must treat all such requests equally, pursuant to published, objective, viewpoint-neutral guidelines. The viewpoint of off-campus speakers’ messages alone should not be a consideration in granting or denying access.”
Padgett has been generally successful in suing colleges and universities that have refused to give Spencer an opportunity to speak. The Washington Post reported last year that “in April a federal judge reversed Auburn University’s cancellation of a Spencer event, finding no evidence that Spencer advocated violence, and ruling that a decision based on the content of the speech was a violation of the First Amendment.”
Diclosure: ELi's Publisher Alice Dreger has been paid by FIRE as a keynote speaker for FIRE's faculty conference and its student networking conference.