Auburn University – April 18, 2017

Federal judge orders university to host white nationalist

Auburn, AL

An event featuring Richard Spencer, a leader of the white nationalist movement, inspired several hundred students to protest. Auburn University administrators attempted to cancel the event, citing safety concerns. However, a federal judge granted Spencer’s request for an injunction, effectively ordering Auburn to host him on campus

Key Players

Richard Spencer is president and director of the National Policy Institute, a think tank dedicated to “the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent,” according to the organization’s website. In November 2016, Spender addressed a National Policy Institute meeting celebrating the results of the presidential election and shouted “Hail Trump!” in a manner that provoked members of his audience to give a Nazi-like salute. In January 2017, Spencer was punched in the face by a masked assailant during President Trump’s inauguration. Spencer’s membership was revoked at a gym in Alexandria, Virginia, due to his political beliefs.

US District Court Judge W. Keith Watkins granted Spencer’s request for an injunction after university officials canceled his visit. Watkins’ decision effectively ordered Auburn to host Spencer as originally scheduled.

Further Details

Richard Spencer’s invitation to speak at Auburn University inspired a mostly peaceful protest by several hundred students. Three protesters were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct.

Administrators from Auburn attempted to cancel the event, citing concerns that student demonstrations might result in violence or property damage. After receiving complaints from organizations such as the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, Auburn administrators canceled a contract permitting the use of the planned venue, reports The New York Times. However, Judge W. Keith Watkins of the U.S. District Court in Montgomery, Alabama, issued an injunction, effectively forcing the public university to host the controversial speaker. The judge found no evidence that Spencer advocates violence, writing that “discrimination on the basis of message content cannot be tolerated under the First Amendment,” according to The New York Times.

Prior to the injunction, administrators released a statement saying that, “Auburn University supports the rights and privileges afforded by the First Amendment. However, when the tenets of free speech are overshadowed by threats to the safety of our students, faculty and staff, we have a responsibility to protect our campus.” When the university cancelled Spencer’s scheduled visit, he redoubled his commitment to speak to students. “They think they have shut this down, but they haven’t,” he told The Plainsman. “I will give a speech on their campus. It is a public place. I think Auburn University is naive and has totally misunderstood who I am if they think that I am going to politely back out of this. I will be there 100 percent.” After Judge Watkins’ injunction, the university’s provost and chief diversity officer sent a letter to students requesting that they remain peaceful. The administrators also permitted students to miss classes on the day of the event.

Spencer’s lecture was attended by approximately 400 people, including both supporters and protesters. Attendees cheered and booed at various points during the presentation. At one point, Spencer said that the Auburn’s black football players perpetuate “sexual abuse of white women on campus,” The New York Times reports. Some of those in attendance chanted “let him speak,” in response to hecklers. Many people departed during Spencer’s two-hour speech, leaving a much smaller crowd by the end of the event, CNN reports.

Foy Hall, the auditorium where Spencer spoke, is available for rent to the public and was reserved in this case by a supporter of Spencer’s named Cameron Padgett. Spencer said the event was sponsored by AltRight.com, a white nationalist website, CNN reports.

Student groups, partnering with outside organizations such as the NAACP, set up a peaceful concert elsewhere on campus during the event. “The goal is to draw people away from that event and to overshadow it and to show what real solidarity and unity and diversity looks like,” Victoria Siciliano, communications coordinator for the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Rights, told The New York Times.

Peaceful protesters wore orange ribbons on their wrists to identify themselves in case violence broke out, according to CNN. “You saw Berkeley,” one organizer told CNN. “Seeing people really get hurt and bloody is something we don’t want for our school population.”

“We’re trying to block hate speech with music and positive ideas and unity,” another student organizer told CNN. “We think this is a more effective message to the outside and to our minority students. Our goal is to not be the next Berkeley.”

As Spencer supporters exited the auditorium after the event, protesters began to chase them off campus.

Outcome

Despite Auburn’s Attempts to Cancel the Event, Spencer Delivered Remarks at Auburn

Fearful of violent protests, Auburn administrators canceled the event. However, a federal judge granted Richard Spencer an injunction, effectively ordering the university to host a speech by the white nationalist. Spencer spoke to a crowded auditorium filled with both supporters and hecklers.

Students organized a peaceful concert to draw attention away from Spencer’s event

Fearful of violent protests, students organized a peaceful concert that took place at another area on campus. Some students wore orange wristbands to help law enforcement distinguish between peaceful and violent protesters. There were brief moments of violence outside of the event, resulting in three arrests.

External References:

Richard Spencer’s Full Speech at Auburn University

Auburn University Statement on Richard Spencer

Letter from Provost and Chief Diversity Officer regarding Spencer event

Against its wishes, Auburn hosts white nationalist Richard Spencer, CNN

Richard Spencer Speech at Auburn U. Greeted by Protests, The New York Times

Federal court rules in favor of Richard Spencer speech, The Plainsman

Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18

August 22, 2017