White nationalist group seeks MSU appearance

Detroit News staff and wire reports

Michigan State University is reviewing a request from a group led by white nationalist Richard Spencer to appear on campus this year, officials said Wednesday.

The National Policy Institute, described on its website as “an independent organization dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States and around the world,” recently reached out to the East Lansing school about renting space to accommodate a speaker, MSU President Lou Anna Simon said in a statement.

Details of the application were not released Wednesday.

Simon said that university administrators “are aware of no connection with any MSU-related group or individual, but such is not required to seek publicly available space,” and decision has not yet been made.

“We are reviewing the request closely in light of the deplorable violence in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend,” she said. “Michigan State takes seriously its obligations to accommodate a broad range of speech. As our record shows, this university does not determine who can access public spaces based on what they think or say.

“Allowing access to public spaces would in no way constitute endorsement of messages that might be delivered there. NPI and similar groups’ events staged at American campuses are intended to provoke reaction that might seem to justify organizers’ racist and divisive messages, which we categorically reject.”

Spencer, president and director of the National Policy Institute, popularized the term “alternative right” about a decade ago. The so-called alt-right is a fringe movement that has been described as a mix of racism, white nationalism and populism.

The movement has been thrust into the spotlight after President Donald Trump’s election and after violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend.

James Alex Fields Jr., a young man who was said to idolize Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany in high school, has been charged with killing a woman by slamming a car into a group of counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally Sunday in Charlottesville. .

Spencer and former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke attended the demonstrations. Spencer also had sought permission to speak at the University of Florida next month but ws denied by the university.

University president W. Kent Fuchs, who has called the events in Virginia “deplorable,” said in a statement Wednesday that the decision was made after assessing risks to the campus, community and law enforcement following the violence in Charlottesville..

In denying the request, Fuchs said he finds Spencer’s racist rhetoric “repugnant and counter to everything the university and this nation stands for.”

Fuchs said the university is dedicated to free speech and public discourse, but the First Amendment doesn’t require risk of imminent violence to students.

Auburn University spent nearly $30,000 in legal fees in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Spencer from speaking on its campus in Alabama in April.

It is not yet clear how the controversies could affect Spencer seeking to speak at MSU or elsewhere in Michigan.

State Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton Township, who is running for governor and seeking the Republican nomination in 2018, recently introduced “campus free speech” legislation that would discourage public universities from restricting peaceful protests, speech, signs, literature or petitions.

Colbeck said he generally encourages “more dialogue, not less dialogue” on university campuses but said he did not know enough about the National Policy Institute to discuss its specific request.

“For all I know, they’re advocating terrorism, so I’m not going to go off and support something without knowing about it, but I think the key thing is we have to be open to some dialogue that’s maybe uncomfortable at times.”

Trump faced criticism this week from congressional Republicans and Democrats after renewing his claim “there is blame on both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville, comparing the actions of white supremacist groups and those protesting them.

Colbeck offered a similar response to Charlottesville, saying he thinks “we have to start showing appreciation for what unites us, but there are some people that are deliberately instigating on both sides of the political spectrum, poking and prodding until something erupts.”

“I denounce white supremacy, I denounce Black Lives Matter, Antifa, I denounce the KKK and all those groups that try to divide us,” Colbeck said. “… Identity politics is not a thing I like to support at all.”

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon called comparisons between white supremacists and protestors in Charlottesville “a disgusting form of moral equivalency” but said he thinks the National Policy Institute request puts Michigan State “in a tough position.”

“There is a free speech element involved, but I think given the violence and racial bigotry that they expressed in Charlottesville, I certainly don’t want them in our state,” Dillon said. “I think Michigan State should be mindful of the fact that their actions have gone beyond free speech and really gotten into violence, which is very concerning.”