University leaders fear rise of hate events on campus

University leaders across the United States vehemently denounced the white supremacist demonstrations that imploded last weekend with the death of a counter-protester in a small Virginia college town.

And amid a looming sense that the alt-right movement is just warming up, they are consulting legal experts to figure out what leverage they might have to prevent similar outbursts, should they erupt on their campuses, without violating the constitutional right of free speech.

Last week two public universities took steps to prevent rallies on their campuses sponsored by white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other extremist groups, both citing the potential risk of violence based on public comments linking last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, to their campuses.

There, one woman was killed and 19 people were injured when a car rammed into a crowd of counter-protesters on a downtown Charlottesville street. Two Virginia state police died in a helicopter crash as they were supporting law-enforcement operations.

Texas A&M University in College Station called off an event billed as 'White Lives Matter', which had been scheduled for 11 September and organised by Preston Wiginton, a former student who once was named 'strongest skinhead' in a weightlifting contest, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes.

The University of Florida denied a request to rent event space on campus by the National Policy Institute, which describes itself as “an independent organisation dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world.”

It is led by Richard Spencer, a University of Virginia alumnus and organiser of the Charlottesville rally.

Noting that “planning is now underway for potentially controversial events” this autumn at the University of California at Berkeley, Chancellor Carol Christ said in an email to her campus community that “we will make every effort to deter, remove, or apprehend those who seek to cause harm to others”.

Officials at Berkeley, often heralded as the birthplace of the free speech movement, in February pulled the plug on a speech to be given by conservative activist Milo Yiannopoulos and locked down campus buildings after demonstrators set fires and vandalised property to protest against his appearance.

The university has since been targeted in a lawsuit filed by a woman who had come to hear Yiannopoulos. She said campus police did not help her when she was attacked with pepper spray by a protester.

Two months later, Berkeley officials sought to change the date for a campus appearance by conservative commentator Ann Coulter. After two student groups filed a lawsuit against the university, Coulter pulled out of her visit to the campus citing safety concerns. (Earlier in April, Coulter appeared without incident at the University of Notre Dame, a private college. Members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People of Notre Dame held a silent demonstration outside.)

First Amendment ruling

The cancellations stand in contrast to a federal judge’s ruling in April that Auburn University in Alabama could not block a speech by Spencer because there was no evidence that he advocates violence. “Discrimination on the basis of message content cannot be tolerated under the First Amendment,” the ruling said.

In a statement posted online that day, Auburn officials said the speech would proceed, adding: “It is now more important than ever that we respond in a way that is peaceful, respectful, and maintains civil discourse.” Three counter-protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct, and Auburn University faced almost US$30,000 in legal fees.

One emerging quandary: How to act when the university is only tangentially involved.

Spencer had stoked controversy at Texas A&M in a December 2016 speech, after which the university changed its policy on speakers, requiring that university-sanctioned groups sponsor events in campus facilities. "None of the 1,200-plus campus organisations invited Preston Wiginton (the weightlifter) nor did they agree to sponsor his events in December 2016 or on 11 September of this year," the school said in a statement.

At least two universities, the University of Nevada, Reno and Washington State University in Pullman, issued statements last week saying they had no legal cause to expel or sanction white nationalists who had later been identified in photographs as students at their institutions.

Under pressure from the College Republican National Committee, Washington State student James Allsup resigned as president of the school’s chapter. University of Nevada officials also concluded that “there is no constitutional or legal reason” to fire their student, Peter Cvjetanovic, from a campus job.

Cvjetanovic, whom photos show holding a torch and appearing to be shouting, told a Nevada news station that “I’m not the angry racist they see in that photo.” He added that he joined the Charlottesville rally because “white European culture has a right to be here just like every other culture”.

Organisers of last weekend’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, said they were protesting against the city’s decision to remove from a public park a statue of Robert E Lee, a Civil War hero of the South, who lost the battle to defend slavery.

Spencer had secured permission to gather in the city park, and thousands of demonstrators, many of them counter-demonstrators, were expected to show up.

Chants reminiscent of Nazi Germany

City officials tried to relocate the rally further away but the night before it was to be held a federal judge affirmed the group’s right to assemble at the park.

After the judge’s ruling, more than 200 white nationalists, mostly male and many bearing lit torches, marched across the grounds of the University of Virginia, repeating chants such as “Jews will not replace us” and other references reminiscent of Nazi Germany. At one point, the university’s dean of students was hit with a torch.

Campus police, citing unlawful assembly, ordered them to disperse.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or FIRE, an ardent defender of the rights of college students and faculty to express even the most repugnant messages on campus, said in a statement that it would not intervene in either of the controversies – at Texas A&M and the University of Florida – because neither event was organised by students or faculty.

But FIRE spokesman Will Creeley said: “Non-specific concerns about safety or disruption must not be used as a pretext for cancelling unpopular speakers” and that violence “committed in one location by members of a group is generally not a sufficient justification for cancelling or prohibiting group members from speaking in another location”.

Nevertheless, “violence is never an acceptable response to protected speech or peaceful protest,” Creeley added. “If the relentless tumult of recent months is any indication, the coming academic year may pose a severe test to our national commitment to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.”