MSU denies request by white nationalist group

Sarah Rahal, and Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Michigan State University rejected a request from a group headed by white nationalist Richard Spencer to visit the campus this year, officials announced Thursday.

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 asked the East Lansing school about renting space to accommodate a speaker, MSU President Lou Anna Simon said Wednesday.

She said in a statement that university administrators were “aware of no connection with any MSU-related group or individual, but such is not required to seek publicly available space.”

After consulting with law enforcement officials, the university said Thursday it would deny the group’s request.

“This decision was made due to significant concerns about public safety in the wake of the tragic violence in Charlottesville last weekend,” school representatives said. “While we remain firm in our commitment to freedom of expression, our first obligation is to the safety and security of our students and our community.”

Spencer, replying to a Detroit News request for comment on Twitter, said: “A clear precedent was set in the federal decision against Auburn,” referring to his win in federal court against Auburn University in Alabama, which initially denied a similar request in April, according to the Associated Press.

When asked if he intends to challenge MSU decision like he did in the Auburn University case, he replied: “You’ll have to wait and see.”

The Auburn suit claimed the university violated free-speech rights by trying to stop Spencer's appearance. Spencer ultimately spoke to a crowd of 400 people on April 18. A video posted online showed two men fighting outside the building, according to the AP.

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 was thrust into the spotlight after President Donald Trump’s election and after violent clashes last weekend during a white nationalists’ rally in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia.

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 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 was denied by the university.

Agustin V. Arbulu, executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said the university wasn’t denying Spencer’s freedom of speech, but rather being cautious. The department on Wednesday issued a statement saying Spencer had a right to assemble and speak, but condemned hate speech.

“I don’t think it would be a civil disagreement,” Arbulu said Thursday after MSU’s announcement. “When freedom of speech aims to incite action, aims to incite violence, then I think you’ve crossed the line. If it’s aimed to harm then we can’t condone it.”