Police, Politicians, and Free-Speech Advocates React to Controversial Speaker Possibility
Above: Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago (left) and last year’s Black Lives Matter protest in East Lansing.
The news that the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist group, is seeking space to rent at MSU for a speaker has been generating much public anxiety and debate here in East Lansing. The National Policy Institute (NPI) is“dedicated to the heritage, identity and future of people of European descent.” Richard Spencer, generally considered to be a white supremacist, is the president of that group.
Members of the MSU and East Lansing community are particularly concerned about possible violence after what happened this past weekend in Virginia. As the New York Times has reported, “In Charlottesville, the violence [there] left a 32-year-old woman dead after far-right protesters gathered to protest plans to move a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.”
To get a sense of how local leaders are thinking about this matter for East Lansing, ELi reached out to East Lansing’s mayor, the East Lansing Police Department (ELPD), the three people running for City Council seats this fall. We also called on national advocates for free speech on campus to find out how they see the issue.
Interim Captain Steve Gonzalez of ELPD told ELi this morning, “If the University approves this group's request, the University police department will be responsible for implementing the necessary safety and security plans as the event will take place within their jurisdiction. Both of our police departments have a long history of working well with each other and, if requested, ELPD will certainly provide MSUPD any support they deem necessary.”
Gonzalez adds that, given that “civil disturbance” could come off campus into ELPD’s jurisdiction, “we will be developing contingency plans for such an occurrence to ensure both public safety and the protection of constitutional rights.”
Mayor Mark Meadows says he hopes MSU will simply keep Spencer and his organization out: “The University of Florida refused to rent space to Spencer because of the likelihood of violence at any engagement on campus. I would hope that MSU has the same courage and foresight, especially after the events at Charlottesville.”
Meadows continues, “That being said, I don't want to put these movements back in the shadows because I think the light of day is healthy for society and public discourse regarding white nationalism and racism exposes the marginal nature of those ideas. As to Spencer, he is Trumpian. He is a rich kid who has never really had to make his way in society. He is smart—but so was the Unabomber.”
The People Running for Council:
The three people running for two spots on City Council this fall are current Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier, current City Councilmember Susan Woods, and MSU undergraduate Aaron Stephens.
Aaron Stephens responded to our inquiry to say that he cares about free speech, but said, “we must acknowledge that calling for the extinction of another race, or advocating the superiority of one, is not free speech. This speech advocates violence against groups of people, both directly and indirectly, and therefore is not considered free speech. It is hate speech, and yes, there is a difference.”
Stephens speaks of intimidation: “My freshman year, someone carved something racially charged onto my front door, and it made me afraid to be in my own home. If we can’t assure our campus and our City of East Lansing is a welcoming and safe environment to all people, regardless of background, we have larger issues to take on than booking a public space.”
He adds, “I am a proud person of color, and if this group is allowed onto my campus, I will be standing firm in the front, leading the protest against them, with our white allies standing strong beside us. Groups like NPI will not divide us. We are one America, no matter your race, gender identity, religion, or sexual orientation, and my city and campus do not condone these separatist ideals. So to these white nationalists, as it’s been said to me too many times, if you don’t like it... go home.”
Ruth Beier, who is traveling, sent us a short response: “If I ran MSU, I would do whatever was within my legal power to prevent any hate group from renting space. But that said, I don’t know the law. I don’t know what would be constitutional or not.”
Susan Woods did not respond to requests for comment.
National Free-Speech Advocates:
Will Creeley, Senior Vice President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (The FIRE), sees it as important to uphold key free-speech principles. FIRE’s mission “is to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities.”
Writes Creeley, “Speakers should not be banned from campus because of their viewpoint—even those views that some, many, or all of us find repugnant—and students and faculty must have the freedom to peacefully engage, protest, or ignore them.”
Says Creeley, “Public universities that permit off-campus, uninvited speakers to rent or use university facilities or properties must treat all such requests equally, pursuant to published, objective, viewpoint-neutral guidelines. The viewpoint of off-campus speakers’ messages alone should not be a consideration in granting or denying access.”
If police departments are concerned about safety, says Creeley, those concerns must be stated clearly and transparently. “Nonspecific concerns about safety or disruption must not be used as a pretext for canceling unpopular speakers, or else public universities will be granted a dangerously cynical means to ban minority, dissenting, unwanted, or merely inconvenient viewpoints from campus.”
Geoffrey Stone explains that the danger here is “the heckler’s veto”—essentially empowering government (or other authorities) to stop unpopular views from being expressed by threatening violent clashes. Stone is the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and a nationally-recognized scholar in constitutional law. He has been a strong advocate for academic freedom and free speech on campuses and is the lead author of “The Chicago Principles” which addresses these issues.
Stone told ELi today that MSU has put itself in an awkward position because it chooses to use its facilities as a money-making opportunity by inviting the public to rent space. If MSU limited speakers to those it invites for academic purposes, it would have an “out” here, because no campus group has invited NPI to speak.
But, Stone says, MSU is now in an “unusual situation” that has arisen “because MSU has engaged in this economic activity designed to generate resources by renting out space to all comers. In effect, what it has done is create a public forum.” Now, Stone says, MSU “cannot discriminate on the basis of viewpoint.”
Stone says MSU’s lawyer might decide to say the cost of security would be so high that the university would lose money. But whether that would give them a legal “out” is not clear. MSU might still have to allow the organization if the organization is willing to cover the security costs.
“This is a [law school] exam question,” Stone says, meaning it is a relatively novel legal situation open to debate. He says he doesn’t really know a case like it.
Stone does warn that taking the approach Aaron Stephens advocates—direct confrontational protest—is the wrong strategy. He says, “that’s exactly the opposite of what you want to do in these situations. Even though it may feel good, and you may feel courageous, like you’re taking a stand, frankly you’re doing something that only empowers the people you’re trying to disempower.”
He recommends holding peaceful protests at different times and in different locations and avoiding drawing media attention to the issue. “If the media loses interest, because there’s no [public] interest, it goes away. By making it into a drama,” Stone says “you make them [the right-wing protestors] do it more and more and more.”
“It would be a mistake—even though it feels courageous and moral—to play into their hands,” Stone concludes. He notes that what he is saying accords with what he has read from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.
Update: August 17, 5 p.m.: MSU Provost June Youatt just released the following statement: "After consultation with law enforcement officials, Michigan State University has decided to deny the National Policy Institute's request to rent space on campus to accommodate a speaker. This decision was made due to significant concerns about public safety in the wake of the tragic violence in Charlottesville last weekend. 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."
Disclosure: Alice Dreger (reporter for this story and ELi's publisher) is a national advocate for academic freedom and free speech on campuses. She was paid last year to give the keynote at FIRE's Student Network Conference in Philadelphia and is being paid this year to provide the keynote to FIRE's Faculty Conference in Dallas. She resigned her position at Northwestern University over censorship, and FIRE and Geoffrey Stone supported her in that resignation.