Two public institutions, two hours away from each other, announced on Friday two different responses to speaking requests from Richard Spencer.
The University of Cincinnati decided to let outspoken white supremacist Spencer rent a space and speak at the public institution, like anyone else wishing to hold an event there.
In a letter dated the same day, Christopher Culley, Ohio State University's senior vice president and general counsel, wrote to Spencer’s lawyer, Kyle J. Bristow, saying that the university determined the proposed event -- a speaking event at the student union -- cannot be held safely, and the university is “considering other alternatives” to the request:
The university has reviewed this request and has determined that this request cannot be accommodated without substantial risk to public safety. However, the university is currently considering other alternatives for Mr. Padgett’s request and expects to be in touch by the end of next week regarding whether there may be viable alternatives for Mr. Padgett’s consideration.
Cameron Padgett, referenced in the letter, is a graduate student at Georgia State University who has been helping Spencer book college tours across the country.
What precisely Ohio State determined to be a risk, and how it came to those determinations, is not exactly clear, as a spokesman declined to comment beyond the letter. But over the past few months, the response from public universities to Spencer's speaking requests has not exactly been uniform.
Navigating Murky Waters
As Inside Higher Ed previously reported, events in Charlottesville, Va., in August, rocked the boat for the viability of Richard Spencer’s speaking engagements.
In mid-August, a conglomeration of white supremacists and far-right activists converged in Charlottesville for a “Unite the Right” rally. Marching through the University of Virginia’s campus on a Friday night, protesters carried torches and shouted chants aimed at minorities, including “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.”
The next day, as protests continued, a “Unite the Right” protester rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, injuring about 20 people and killing one woman.
Spencer’s involvement and appearance at the rallies held that weekend gave many public colleges slated for his tour concrete public safety concerns, especially considering language promoting one of the college events that directly linked Charlottesville and the college events.
“Today Charlottesville, tomorrow Texas A&M,” read one of the fliers promoting a “White Lives Matter” rally, which Texas A&M canceled.
“Linking the tragedy of Charlottesville with the Texas A&M event creates a major security risk on our campus. Additionally, the daylong event would provide disruption to our class schedules and to student, faculty and staff movement (both bus system and pedestrian),” a statement from Texas A&M read at the time. In 2016, Texas A&M had allowed Spencer to speak at the university.
But how long, or how well, Texas A&M’s move will set a precedent is not clear.
The University of Florida also canceled an event that Spencer was supposed to hold on campus, citing security concerns. Earlier this month, however, the institution changed course, announcing that Spencer would be allowed to speak. The university engaged with local law enforcement to craft a security plan -- similar to other security plans that, across the country, as more and more fringe and radical speakers draw protesters, are becoming financially draining for universities. Florida’s plan is slated to cost roughly $500,000.
Legal Threats, Institutional Changes
As Spencer has been rebuffed -- sometimes successfully, sometimes not -- there isn’t clear legal precedent for how much public safety concerns can deter his speaking events. Although his lawyer has made legal threats against Ohio State and the University of Cincinnati, citing First Amendment grounds, formal legal action hasn’t taken place, leaving the post-Charlottesville public safety concerns untested before a court.
Additionally, it isn’t clear at this point what the final outcome of the Ohio State decision will be.
In April, before Charlottesville, Auburn University tried to block Spencer from speaking on campus, citing safety concerns. A federal judge ruled that Spencer was allowed to speak, however, and the event took place.
Several universities, after the Auburn decision went through, changed their policies for renting out space on campus. Auburn’s policy allowed outsiders to rent space at the public institution, and since Spencer spoke, some colleges have limited who can rent space, only making it available to students and associated groups.
University of Cincinnati President Neville Pinto said in a statement that no one affiliated with the institution invited Spencer to speak. The letter from Ohio State’s general counsel references Padgett, the Georgia State student, rather than an Ohio State student group.
“Countless members of our community have courageously pointed out that his ideology of hate and exclusion is antithetical to the core values of a civil society and an academic community,” Pinto said. “I stand with you in condemning dehumanizing views and racist practices.”
A Cincinnati pastor, Damon Lynch III, and local activists told reporters that they would protest Spencer's appearance with a "message of love" to counter his message of hate.
The University of Virginia issued an institutional review after the Charlottesville protests, launched to analyze how the university was so caught off guard, and what it could have done better.
Among the shortcomings highlighted in the review were the lack of enforcement of certain campus and state regulations, which the review acknowledged were not necessarily common knowledge. According to the report, university police should have had authority to cancel the nighttime march through campus based on the use of torches -- per a campus policy against open flames -- but the police were “not sufficiently aware of its authority to enforce this policy.” There is also a Virginia state law that outlaws “with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons, [burning] an object on a highway or other public place in a manner having a direct tendency to place another person in reasonable fear or apprehension of death or bodily injury.”
In addition for calling for the enforcement of those policies in the future, the report suggested adopting constitutionally permissible regulations for the use of campus for organized marches, which would give the university more of a heads-up.
Ultimately, the latter regulations were not adopted by the university.
As for the University of Cincinnati, the date of the speech is still being finalized. The final result of Spencer and Ohio State’s current gridlock remains to be seen.