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Detroit — As talks continue between the University of Michigan and Richard Spencer over his request to appear on campus, the UM president said Monday the white supremacist has thrust the university between a cornerstone of American democracy — free speech — and campus safety.

“If the University of Michigan does not allow Richard Spencer to speak, we will surely be sued and we will lose and (that) would make Spencer more of a hero in his community,” said UM President Mark Schlissel. “We’d lift him up.”

But he said: “If we can’t do a safe event, we won’t do it.”

Schlissel made his comments after he spoke before members of the Detroit Economic Club and as controversy continues to swirl around Spencer and his interest in speaking at UM, Michigan State University and other universities across the nation.

A representative for Spencer asked UM in October to let him speak on campus, and the university is in negotiations to set a time and a place. Last week, a representative of the white supremacist leader threatened to sue UM if a date was not set by Jan. 15. Officials offered a few dates last month and this month, but they did not work for Spencer.

Meanwhile, students have been protesting the school’s effort to accommodate Spencer, saying someone like him should not be given a platform to promote his beliefs because they clash with the university’s values. They also said the university should dare Spencer to sue.

But Schlissel said the university does not have a choice, because it cannot knowingly violate the law.

“Our strength as a nation is we have an outstanding Constitution and a Bill of Rights to rely on in times of crisis but also every day, to guide us and express our shared values,” Schlissel said. “The Constitution is incredibly important, maybe more so now than some other recent decades.”

The biggest concern, Schlissel and other UM officials have said, is campus safety, because protests can lead to violence, Schlissel said.

He called it a teachable moment for UM students, along with the community.

“What’s more important now to our nation and our current moment than the First Amendment and the five protections of the First Amendment?” Schlissel said. “It’s not just free speech, it’s the freedom to convene, to assemble, it’s the freedom of religion, it’s the freedom of press, it’s the freedom to petition your government.

“Not many government officials say, ‘Lock those reporters up in a cage. They’re putting out fake news, they’re against our values.’” Schlissel said. “We cannot be on the wrong side of the First Amendment.

But he also said: “We’ll protect the safety of our students and our community,” even if that means not hosting Spencer.

Kyle J. Bristow, a Clinton Township attorney representing Spencer, said UM must give an answer to Spencer by Martin Luther King Jr. Day. No more extensions will be given.

“The First Amendment, and the rights it guarantees to my people, is nonnegotiable,” said Bristow. “I will use all the resources at my disposal to see the controversy through to a just and equitable conclusion. I have neither patience nor tolerance for left-wing academia bureaucrats who spit upon the rights I hold dear.”

Spencer recently requested space on Michigan State University’s campus and sued the university after officials would not make a space available. A mediator is working to settle the dispute. Spencer also has sued to speak at Auburn University, Pennsylvania State University and Ohio State University, according to Bristow.

The challenge on campus, Schlissel said, is working with students to think through this very difficult circumstance.

“I have no interest in hearing what this man has to say,” Schlissel said after his speech. “I find his comments vile and annoying and insulting. I can understand why students could be quite upset. But don’t go to his talk.”

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

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