Richard B. Spencer is the leader of an alt-right, white nationalist group called the National Policy Institute, which describes itself as "an independent organization dedicated to the heritage, identity and future of people of European descent in the United States." Spencer and his group have become much better known in the last week after video circulated of him speaking at a meeting in Washington where he shouted "Hail Trump," and many of his fans in the audience responded with Nazi-style salutes.
In case anyone missed the Nazi motif, Spencer criticized journalists as being part of the Lügenpresse, the Nazi term for "lying press."
Spencer told The Washington Post that his next target is college campuses and that he already has speeches planned at Texas A&M University and the University of Michigan. “I think there’s going to be a huge crowd,” he told the Post. “The world is changing.”
The Texas A&M appearance is next week and has set off a furious debate on the campus about free speech and tolerance. Some have demanded that the university call off the event, something the university says would be impossible for it to do legally, given that Texas A&M is a public institution. Numerous protests are being planned by students, however.
To understand why so many people are upset about Spencer, consider these background reports from the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, both of which note that he has called for the creation of a white state of America.
More than 8,000 people have signed an online petition calling for Texas A&M to block his appearance. The petition says of Spencer, "His neo-Nazi, white nationalist rhetoric is nothing more than hate speech. It is not what Aggies stand for, and we call for Texas A&M to denounce this man and cancel this speaking engagement immediately."
Texas A&M released this statement from Amy Smith, the university’s senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer: "There has been deep concern expressed by our Aggie community about an individual planning to speak at our campus. To be clear, Texas A&M University -- including faculty, staff, students and/or student groups -- did not invite this speaker to our campus nor do we endorse his rhetoric in any way. In fact, our leadership finds his views as expressed to date in direct conflict with our core values. Private citizens are permitted to reserve space available to the public, as we are a public university, as is the case here. Public groups must cover all rental expenses so that state resources are not burdened." The university did not name the person who invited Spencer, but that person is reportedly a former student.
The university statement also did not name Spencer. (A spokeswoman for the University of Michigan said that institution had no confirmation of a Spencer visit.)
At Texas A&M, many minority student groups and Jewish groups have criticized Spencer and vowed to protest and organize activities to promote inclusiveness. Notably, those student groups have been joined by organizations that represent all of Texas A&M's student body. A letter denouncing Spencer was signed not only by the heads of the Asian, black, Latino, Muslim and Jewish student groups, but also by the student body president, the head yell leader and the commandant of the Corps of Cadets.
And just as Jewish groups are horrified by the high profile of Spencer (or anyone whose speeches are greeted with Nazi salutes), so are many Texas A&M alumni who are proud of the university's military tradition and the role of Aggie alumni in fighting Hitler. More than 20,000 Texas A&M alumni fought for the United States in World War II, and 953 were killed.
Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, who is rabbi and executive director of Hillel at Texas A&M, said in an interview, “I understand the First Amendment constraints, but I would have liked Texas A&M to have said, ‘No, we won’t have our brand and our name associated with this kind of hatred.’”
Rabbi Rosenberg noted that there are only around 300 Jewish students at the university, or less than half of 1 percent of the student body, and he said this event will make it more difficult to attract Jewish students.
Hillel is working with the Anti-Defamation League, which will put on a program at the university this week about Spencer and his organization. Rabbi Rosenberg said he would work with Jewish students to find the right protest approach for whoever wants to take a public stand "and to show that hate is not an Aggie value."
Many students at Texas A&M appear to be backing a planned silent protest in which students will attend and stand outside in silence.
On the group's Facebook page, it has explained its rationale for silent protest: "Representatives of all organizations coordinating on this protest strongly believe that having a vocal, angry protest will give Mr. Spencer and the people who share his white supremacist ideas ammunition to further their own cause …. Something we should all remember is that Aggies don't boo. As Aggies, it is our responsibility to show class and refrain from boorish behavior, regardless of the actions of others. A large crowd making silent eye contact gets our point across without compromising our values as Aggies. Besides, which would you find more unnerving: a stadium full of people yelling, or a full stadium that is completely silent. We organizers think the latter."
As to the idea of the university turning away Spencer, the student group said, "Texas A&M is a public university and the event was organized by a private individual, thus it is very likely he will speak regardless of attempts to prevent it. Mr. Spencer has a right to free speech just as we have a right to protest, as long as everyone (ourselves and Mr. Spencer) refrains from violence, vitriol and anger. Mr. Spencer's event is not a rally for white supremacists, but a discussion on how the alt-right is impacting U.S. politics. We are not protesting this talk; we are protesting a man who expresses white supremacist and white nationalist ideals through previous actions and organizations. We are protesting what Mr. Spencer stands for, not what he intends to talk about."