UM to enter into talks with Spencer on campus speech

Kim Kozlowski and Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

University of Michigan officials decided Tuesday to enter into talks with white nationalist Richard Spencer about possibly speaking on the Ann Arbor campus.

“After consulting widely with many members of our community, I made the difficult decision to begin discussions with Richard Spencer’s group to determine whether he will be allowed to rent space to speak on the University of Michigan campus,” UM President Mark Schlissel said in a statement Tuesday.

“As a public university,” Schlissel said, “the law and our commitment to free speech forbid us from declining a speaker based on the presumed content of speech. But we can and will impose limits on time, place and manner of a speaking engagement to protect the safety of our U-M community.

“If we cannot assure a reasonably safe setting for the event, we will not allow it to go forward.”

Schlissel announced the move during a UM Regents special meeting Tuesday night about Spencer’s bid to rent space at the university to speak. Spencer’s lawyers threatened a lawsuit last week if the university didn’t respond by Friday to the request made to the university on Oct. 27 by Cameron Padgett of Spencer’s National Policy Institute.

But scores of students, activists and community members who packed the event with signs and posters while chanting “Just Say No!” blasted the decision.

Many were worried that Spencer’s presence would incite violence, threaten student safety and affect relations for minorities.

“It is paramount to ensure the safety of students and to prevent hate violence wherever possible,” one speaker told the overflow audience at the Michigan Union.

While students and others who attended supported free speech, they believed the groundswell of opposition to Spencer’s views should have been enough to convince university officials to outright reject the request to speak.

“We feel the citizens aren’t being put first,” said Gabriela Romero, 25, a Detroit native and UM master’s student active with a student union. “Just bringing somebody here that pushes (extreme views) — what can we expect as a university?”

Schlissel said in an emailed message to faculty, staff and students that the university “can’t be excellent without being diverse and that all individuals regardless of their background deserve full inclusion in our community and an equal opportunity to thrive.”

“We now face a very difficult test of our ability to uphold these values,” he said. “This is a test we did not welcome, but it’s one that we must face together.”

Others who spoke out Tuesday disagreed.

“It’s really important to have solidarity on not having a white supremacist on our campus,” said Vidhya Aravind, a UM master’s student and activist. “We have the legal resources to fight him. … The university is signaling that they don’t even want to try and it’s really disappointing.”

Spencer and NPI representatives could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

Some UM regents said they also rejected Spencer’s efforts but recognized the need to support free speech.

“His views are odious to me, as they are to everyone who values the principles upon which this Country was founded. But I must give full faith to my duties under the Constitution, especially the principle of free speech embodied in the First Amendment,” Andrea Fischer Newman said. “Those duties are sometimes not easy to fulfill, but it is at times like this that it is all the more important that constitutional officers fulfill their duty.

“I trust that the president, in consultation with our highly experienced Executive Director of our Division of Public Safety and Security, will determine whether this individual can be allowed to speak here safely.”

But that stance failed to satisfy those who chanted “Fascism has got to go” while carrying signs with messages referring to Spencer as a Nazi.

“This is a lot of people coming together to say we don’t want these type of people in our community,” said Hunter Roberts, a UM senior. “We’re not tolerating intolerance.”

Denise Ilitch was the only regent who wanted UM to not consider Spencer’s request.

“While I am a staunch proponent of the First Amendment and stand firmly in support of our constitution, I remain very concerned that it is unsafe to allow him to speak at the University of Michigan,” she said to applause. “Violence follows him wherever he goes. Physical and emotional safety are my number one priority and I am not willing to risk history repeating itself.”

Spencer’s request comes after Michigan State University denied his request to speak, and after UM hosted controversial author Charles Murray, whose appearance was disrupted by protesters.

Soon after Spencer’s request, UM released its first survey on campus climate related to diversity, equity and inclusion. That showed UM African-American students are six times more likely than white students to have felt discrimination in the previous year.

After the survey was unveiled, Schlissel was asked how the university balances discrimination felt by students and the free speech rights of controversial speakers. He said those are some of the most difficult decisions the university has to make.

“Because of our position as a public university, we really don’t have the option of censoring speech, nor would we want that option,” Schlissel said. “But whatever we do, we have to be very respectful to the impact of speakers ... to students as we work on improving the campus climate.”

Spencer’s appearances at other campuses have been accompanied by protests, including a speech in October at the University of Florida.