Marc Johnson can recall just three times in his life when the news changed everything: the Friday afternoon in November 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated; the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001; and the Saturday night in August 2017 when he looked down at his phone and saw a wire-service photo of Peter Cvjetanovic holding a tiki torch.
Johnson, late for a dinner party, was just ducking inside when he opened the urgent email with a photo attached.
It was Aug. 12, two weeks before fall classes were to begin at the University of Nevada at Reno, where Johnson is president. The photo, by then circulating worldwide, showed a very angry young man shouting alongside a crowd of equally angry men, all of whom had marched the previous night at the front of the “Unite the Right” rally, which would soon descend into deadly chaos 2,500 miles away in Charlottesville, Va.
Logan Smith, who tweets under the name @YesYoureRacist, had seen photos of the rally and put out a call asking anyone who recognized any of the marchers to message him. "Multiple people messaged me to say Peter was one of their classmates," Smith said -- those included at least one person who had attended high school with Cvjetanovic and several people who said he was a Nevada-Reno classmate.
Johnson's top staff scrambled to confirm the reports.
“I was at home and my phone was lighting up -- and continued to light up,” said Mary Dugan, UNR’s general counsel. Kerri Garcia, university spokeswoman, took a call from Hillary Schieve, Reno’s mayor, who wanted to know what was going on.
Shannon Ellis, who heads student services at the university, called the registrar, who found that the angry young man was indeed Cvjetanovic, a 20-year-old history and political science major. University rolls listed him as Peter Cytanovic, but they were clearly the same person. It turns out that he prefers what has become the widely used alternate spelling of his surname (he says it is pronounced “SVE-TAH-noh-vich”).
One Twitter user, another Nevada student who passed around the image, ID'd Cvjetanovic as a Phi Kappa Phi member and urged others: "DO NOT LET HIM GO UNSHAMED." Soon an #ExpelPeterCvjetanovic hashtag popped up.
As thousands of social media posts, emails and phone calls began pouring in, urging the university to expel the young white supremacist, Johnson had one clear, immediate thought: Cvjetanovic must graduate.
At nearly 150 years old, Nevada’s public land-grant university enrolls more than 21,000 students. It would keep this one as well, Johnson thought, even though that would probably infuriate the university's increasingly diverse group of students, 40 percent of whom were nonwhite by fall 2017.
In the face of sometimes virulent protests, from both inside and outside the university, Johnson and his staff and faculty spent the next nine months resisting calls to dismiss Cvjetanovic, doing whatever they could to keep him on track to graduate. They set up a campuswide complaint "repository" via police and met repeatedly with professors, staff members and students, among others.
In the bargain, UNR got a lesson in the compromises needed to ensure that free speech flows on a public university campus. The episode also offered a powerful counterfactual to the perceived intolerance of most college campuses, especially in their treatment of students with political views outside their (mostly liberal) mainstreams.
“Initially I didn’t have any notion what it would take to allow him to finish,” Johnson said, but he and others spent weeks considering ways “to be more protective than he needed” into the spring.
“It really put the campus through our paces,” he said, recalling that the ordeal challenged Nevada-Reno to be both an open campus and one that responded to the pain that racism can inflict on a rapidly diversifying campus. "In the end, we’re a better campus today," he said, "having been tested."
Fraternity Revokes Membership
At nearly the same time that Ellis identified him as a student, Cvjetanovic outed himself. He was from Reno, a local kid who had graduated in 2014 from North Valleys High School. He would soon be a rising senior at Reno. The university's police chief telephoned his counterpart in the city of Charlottesville to ask if Cvjetanovic had been arrested during the protest. He hadn’t -- nor had he gotten into any fights. He’d done nothing illegal.
Dugan, the university’s general counsel, pulled up the student code of conduct. She and colleagues read it top to bottom but could find nothing actionable.
“What we had was a photograph of a person looking angry,” she said. “And you can’t discipline someone for looking angry. It looked like he was yelling, but we didn’t know what he was saying.”
In its first statement, issued the following day, Johnson denounced “any movement that targets individuals due to the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, political beliefs, sexual orientation, ability/disability, or whether they were born in our country.” But he also said the university “respects the right to freely express views and debate openly in civil discourse.”
At a press briefing the following day, Johnson made it clear: the university wouldn’t expel Cvjetanovic or fire him from his job as a driver for the university’s safety escort service. He was an honor student with a clean record who hadn’t been part of the Charlottesville violence, Johnson said.
By then, Cvjetanovic had voluntarily quit his campus job, telling a local television station, “I did not want to pick at the scab of Charlottesville.”
Two weeks later, classes began, and Cvjetanovic showed up, on schedule, for the fall semester.
That week, more than 700 protesters took part in a Black Lives Matter event that wound from the campus into downtown Reno. A Change.org petition made the rounds online, demanding that the university expel Cvjetanovic.
“By Keeping Him at the School,” the petition read, “THE UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA, RENO IS AS RACIST AS WHITE SUPREMACIST PETER CVJETANOVIC.” Organizers closed it after gathering 36,579 signatures. Phi Kappa Phi revoked Cvjetanovic's membership, saying the Charlottesville protest was "disturbing, disheartening and contrary to our values."
The university stood firm. It was a public institution, and he was entitled to an education, no matter his beliefs.
Johnson made counselors available to students who wanted to talk through the issues raised by the conflict -- he said their calendars remained full through the beginning of the fall semester.
Many classmates, it turned out, were not bashful about saying how uncomfortable they were to have Cvjetanovic around.
“It makes it feel like the university was almost prioritizing one person’s First Amendment rights over the comfort and safety of others,” said Rachel Katz, a senior studying journalism and criminal justice. In an interview, she said, “If other kids feel like their lives are threatened, is that person’s education that important?”
Actually, Johnson said, that is exactly the issue.
“We made it very clear that we are a campus open to all students that are prepared for college,” he said. Protests urging Nevada to oust Cvjetanovic were nonstarters, Johnson said. A university can support open inquiry and free speech while also sending the message that it doesn’t support bigotry. “We know there are bigoted people here,” he said. “That’s not possible to avoid.”
Johnson said the university also refused to make the case -- seemingly an easy one -- that it couldn’t allow Cvjetanovic to be on campus because it couldn't guarantee his safety. The university’s police chief met with Cvjetanovic and offered protection, but he declined it, university officials said. Student services staffers, as well as a few professors, floated the idea of offering Cvjetanovic the opportunity to attend class online, but Cvjetanovic refused that as well.
“He has a right to pursue his education at a state institution,” Johnson said.
Dugan noted that First Amendment free-speech guarantees do not mean that “you’re going to be free of conflict” in college. “You’re going to have conflicts on a college campus. If you didn’t it would frankly be a pretty protected [place] and probably the sort of atmosphere that wouldn’t prepare you for what you’re going to find in your real life, on your first day of work.”
Hate speech, after all, is protected just like other speech, she said.
“If the speech doesn’t amount to true threats or incitement to violence, or if it’s not severe and pervasive to the extent that it basically deprives somebody of their right to fulfill their education, it’s not going to be actionable,” she said.
Dugan said it wasn’t apparent that Cvjetanovic's safety was at risk. Most of the threats, she and others said, had come from outside Nevada, not from fellow students. “He hadn’t been threatened. He hadn’t really threatened anyone else. There was very little to go on, and simply nothing upon which to take action.”
She added, “He’s a Nazi -- it doesn’t mean he doesn’t get to have an education.”
UNR officials said they had no reason to suspect violence on campus. Upon his return, Cvjetanovic publicly promised, in an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal, “that I will not openly threaten or harm any student at the University of Nevada, Reno. My promise is all I have, but I hope that he will take it.”
But Katz, who graduated last May, said the logic of waiting until hate speech turns violent seems upside-down. “Somebody has to get hurt for something to change?” she asked.
An ‘Identitarian’ Speaks
Cvjetanovic did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But in the Gazette-Journal interview, published the week after the Charlottesville rally, he thanked Johnson for welcoming him back to campus. “I’m glad that he respects my ideology, the right to hold my ideology.”
He said that though he’d been called a “nutjob” and a fascist by a few students, he has never espoused fascist beliefs. Most classmates, he said, didn’t care to confront him.
“Overall, there's a lot of people who don't care what I think,” he said. “They just want to go to school. ‘I’ll just go through my life. Like, I want a quiet life and I want to go through my classes, get my A and go home.’”
Not all UNR students were ready to drop the matter: several continued protesting -- and one group produced a series of 5,000 T-shirts reading “I am the real Nevada.”
A group of more than 500 faculty members, meanwhile, composed an open letter vowing to "understand and combat" racism and white supremacy "through our collective scholarship, teaching, and service. We want you, our students, to know that we are committed to creating a campus where all can learn. Our doors are open should you want support."
In a text message to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Cvjetanovic said he went to Charlottesville “to honor the heritage of white culture here in the United States. I recognize the need to acknowledge both the good and bad of white history as it has made the nation we have now. All people have the right to their culture and their history including jews, african-americans, and white americans. I do not advocate for violence and certainly not the death of anyone.”
In an extensive video interview posted to YouTube the following week, Cvjetanovic said he had expected the Charlottesville rally “to be much more lighthearted” than it was. “I was just going to listen to them and then go home. That was all I wanted to do. I didn’t expect things to happen the way they did.”
Cvjetanovic said his plan was to march silently, listen to speakers and leave. But when the crowd started to chant, he did, too -- the iconic photo, he said, was taken while marchers engaged with counterprotesters.
“I got caught in the heat of the moment,” he said, shouting loudly to be heard by the opposing group -- he recalled that the chant going up at the time was roughly: “This is our home. I will fight to defend my home. We have the right to stay here as well. You can’t replace us.”
He added, “I was hoping there wasn’t going to be a skirmish, but I assumed there’d be a scuffle. But I didn’t imagine people dying. That wasn’t expected at all.”
He later told KTVN-TV that he left the rally Saturday afternoon after police declared it an illegal protest. But he later admitted, “There is no excuse for what I did.”
Cvjetanovic said he “did not expect the photo to be shared as much as it was. I understand the photo has a very negative connotation, but I hope that the people sharing the photo are willing to listen, that I’m not the angry racist they see in that photo.”
Being part of the so-called alt-right, he said, “does not make me an evil Nazi.” Rather, he described himself as “pro-white,” saying it “doesn't mean I'm anti-anyone else."
He said he considered himself an "identitarian" or "a white nationalist, if you want to use that term." He believes that “all cultures and peoples -- that includes their languages and their religions and their histories -- are under threat with globalism, with the free exchange of peoples, that languages and peoples just die out, and I believe that the white culture in the United States is at threat in its own way. And I want to help defend that, but also as a white nationalist I hope to work with the black nationalists so that their culture is not wiped away. They’ve been on this continent for 400 years, just like whites.”
He said he understood why “white nationalist” implied superiority to some observers, but cautioned, “I do not, am not a white supremacist in any sense of the word. I do not believe that whites are inherently superior in any way to any other race. I know a lot of stupid whites. I know a lot of intelligent Indians and Asians.”
Cvjetanovic said his trip to Virginia was a kind of test run, in which he dabbled in alt-right ideology.
“As a white nationalist, I care for all people,” he said. “We all deserve a future for our children and for our culture. White nationalists aren’t all hateful; we just want to preserve what we have.”
The Anti-Defamation League later noted that Cvjetanovic’s assertion closely resembled the so-called "14 Words" slogan that white supremacists espouse: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children."
In the interview, Cvjetanovic said he was as surprised as anyone to see that his angry yell became the public face of the event. He admitted to having an “Oh my God -- that’s me” moment, after which he said high school classmates quickly spread his name on social media. It resulted almost immediately in “hundreds” of death threats to him and his family.
He told the Gazette-Journal, "I will defend tooth and nail my views as a white nationalist. I love my culture and will fight for it."
But speaking a few months later with the TV news program Full Measure With Sharyl Attkisson, Cvjetanovic admitted that he’d had a change of heart.
“My biggest mistake is that I stupidly said I am a white nationalist,” he said. “And at that time I did believe I was. But after looking back at the movement, looking back at what happened, I realize that calling myself a white nationalist was very wrong and I no longer agree, I no longer see myself as such.”
Letting Hate Win?
Katz, the classmate who graduated last May, said she was skeptical of Cvjetanovic's transformation. She recalled attending an English class with him freshman year in which she offered a presentation on Israel and mentioned her family connection to the Holy Land.
Cvjetanovic was up next, with a presentation on Palestine.
“He just said some very anti-Semitic things in his presentation about how the Jews are ruining Israel and about how we would make Hitler proud with all the things we’re doing,” Katz said. “I was like, ‘Really?’”
The university was “very caught off-guard” at the sight of Cvjetanovic in Charlottesville, but she said, “I wasn’t really too shocked to see him on TV.” People who encountered him at UNR over the years recalled that he said “some very offensive and very racist things in class.”
While UNR pushed to balance free speech and tolerance, Katz said, “It’s just not enough. They’re kind of letting hate win.”
In February, at a TEDx conference held to explore free speech, Nevada deputy district attorney Orrin Johnson called Cvjetanovic "pitiable and foolish" but defended UNR's right to keep him enrolled.
“His ideas, like all disgusting things, only grow and thrive in dark, dank and hidden-away places,” Orrin Johnson said, adding, “We want to hear his ideas put up against better ones, because sunlight is the best disinfectant. Seeing it, exposing it, examining it, laughing at it, that’s how you make ideas like this lose power.”
He compared the Charlottesville protest to those of perhaps the most well-known recent UNR alumnus: NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick (Class of 2010), who in 2016 began kneeling on the sidelines of football games during the national anthem to protest police-involved deaths of African Americans. Orrin Johnson called Kaepernick's sideline protests "self-aggrandizing nonsense" whose only accomplishment was to "make himself marginally more relevant on the back end of a short football career."
But he said making either man a "martyr" through silencing him isn't effective. "We don't give a politician that we like the power to shut down the wrong ideas because that means someday a politician will come along that we don't like -- and he'll have that same power."
Protests at UNR continued into the spring, when an angry crowd met Cvjetanovic at an academic building after he defended his senior thesis. The Nevada Sagebrush, UNR's student newspaper, reported that protesters had planned to sit at the back of the lecture hall holding signs but were locked out of the session by campus police. A video of the encounter that followed shows protesters meeting him outside the session and pursing him up a flight of stairs, shouting, “Run, Nazi, run!”
Ellis, who heads student services, remembered that protest, saying free speech has consequences -- in this case for Cvjetanovic. “We don’t try and shelter students from the ramifications of what you say or what you do,” she said. “In fact, it’s a good place to learn those lessons as opposed to perhaps outside of the campus, once you have a job or another part of your life is being pursued. This is our opportunity to create chances for them to rub up against difference, to listen to other perspectives, because they come in just knowing their own.”
Karolina Rivas, a UNR senior studying journalism and political science, said she was proud of her classmates for speaking up at a series of forums created to air issues of free speech and discrimination. “Students were not afraid to make their voices heard,” she said. “That was what was admirable about this.”
Ellis said the larger value of Cvjetanovic’s presence on campus was that it helped students figure out not just what free speech means but how they felt about it. She recalled that a group of graduate psychology students asked if they could interview him to ask how he came to believe in white supremacy.
At the forums, dozens of students spoke, she said. “It made my heart sing because these were freshmen -- and this is about finding your voice. ‘What do I believe?’ and getting up in front of people and owning it. That was the beginning of their education here. It was fantastic.”
Paul Mitchell, an African American UNR journalism professor, remembers it differently. He said many black students “expressed an opinion of not feeling safe” on campus post-Charlottesville.
“When the perception is that just because you say a name but you’re not physically harming someone, that that person is not going to be impacted -- that’s completely false,” he said.
Mitchell said the 2017-18 academic year brought notoriety not just from Cvjetanovic’s presence but from several other racially charged incidents, including one in which swastika graffiti appeared on art department buildings; in another instance, a campus police officer dressed up as Kaepernick -- in blackface.
Last September, the university's police chief, Adam Garcia, apologized for an officer’s “inappropriate and offensive comments” made to a black graduate student, former Wolf Pack football player Kevin McReynolds, during a traffic stop. Body-camera video footage captured an officer commenting on how large McReynolds was. Another officer remarked, “That’s why I’m like, ‘I’m just going to shoot him if this goes sideways.’”
Mitchell noted, “All of these things transpired during the year. So it was a very challenging time on the campus.”
In the end, Cvjetanovic graduated cum laude, without incident, at regular commencement ceremonies. He crossed the stage as his name was called and received his diploma like the thousands who came before him. University officials say they have heard that he is in London pursuing graduate studies but couldn't confirm it.
Mitchell said UNR still has a long way to go to make students of color feel welcome. Their deference to Cvjetanovic didn’t help.
“Let’s be clear: he wasn’t the first racist to walk across the stage,” Mitchell said. “And my guess is he won’t be the last.”