ANN ARBOR, MICH. - The University of Michigan took the first step towards letting Richard Spencer — who supporters describe as an alt-right leader and opponents describe as a white supremacist — speak on its campus.
The move came Tuesday night at a rare special public meeting of the Board of Regents on the topic.
"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. If we cannot assure a reasonably safe setting for the event, we will not allow it to go forward," U-M President Mark Schlissel said in his opening statement. "Let me be clear. U-M has not invited this individual to our campus, nor is anyone in our community sponsoring him. His representatives made a request to rent space on our campus for him to speak. We are legally prohibited from blocking such requests based solely on the content of that speech, however sickening it is."
University of Michigan students protest at a Board of Regents meeting about letting Richard Spencer speak on campus (Photo: David Jesse)
"I personally detest and reject the hateful white supremacy and white nationalism expressed by Mr. Spencer as well as his racist, anti-Semitic and otherwise bigoted views, as do the Regents and the entire leadership of this University. Many followers who show up at his rallies share his repugnant beliefs and should be shunned by our community."
The meeting room was packed with students, many holding signs condemning Spencer. They were upset with Schlissel's decision and wasted no time expressing that.
"Say no to Richard Spencer, and if you don't, be ready to have my blood on your hands," student Vidhya Aravind said.
Student Ismael Halaweh said the move confirms his suspicions that the university doesn't really care for students.
"This is really where the rubber meets the road," he said.
Regent Denise Ilitch was the lone regent to break ranks with Schlissel.
"I fully and adamantly reject the hateful white supremacy espoused by Richard Spencer. I reject his anti-Semitic, racist views and his hate of LGBT citizens as well as many others. Unfortunately, I do not agree with the University of Michigan administration.
"I agree with the position of Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Penn State, the University of North Carolina and Auburn University in DENYING his request to speak on their campuses.
"The First Amendment and free speech is a cornerstone of our democratic principles; and 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. Violence follows him wherever he goes.
"Physical and emotional safety are my No. 1 priority and I am not willing to risk history repeating itself."
Regent Mark Bernstein took the other side.
"The only thing worse than Richard Spencer being on our campus is stopping him from being on our campus. We could do the easy thing. Others have. We could ban Richard Spencer. Everyone would celebrate. The board would be cheered. President Schlissel would be applauded. But we would be dancing on our own grave.
"And on our tombstone will read: 'Here lies the University of Michigan. Afraid to do the right and difficult thing, it compromised its commitment to the Constitution and died failing to live up to the bedrock value of free expression that is essential to our mission as a great university (because bold and honest thought requires it).'"
A lawyer representing Cameron Padgett, a University of Georgia student who made the request for space at U-M, had threatened U-M with a lawsuit if they hadn't decided by Friday.
"On my watch the freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution will not be usurped by left-wing bureaucrats who cater to the threats of left-wing students,” attorney Kyle Bristow told the Free Press. “Hail to the Victors: Richard Spencer, Cameron Padgett, and Kyle Bristow!”
Earlier this year, the group requested space at Michigan State University, which turned down the request.
"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," the university said in a statement then. "This decision was made due to significant concerns about public safety in the wake of the tragic violence in Charlottesville..."
MSU board member Brian Mosallam after MSU's decision told the Free Press the administration had to make this decision.
"Freedom of expression is very important to our institution, but above all is the safety of our MSU community," he said. "Recent events have really brought this to light."
Spencer's group has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to have that block overturned. Spencer's group has also filed a lawsuit against Ohio State University, which also turned down a request for speaking space.
He did speak in October at the University of Florida.
Loud chants of “Say it loud! Say it clear! Nazis are not welcome here!” greeted him when he took the stage for the controversial University of Florida speaking appearance.
In this December 2016, photo, Richard Spencer speaks at the Texas A&M University campus in College Station, Texas. (Photo: David J. Phillip, AP)
Spencer spoke and — eventually — fielded questions from a boisterous audience packed with opponents at Phillips Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida.
Organizers had announced that 700 tickets would be distributed, but numerous seats were unoccupied across the theater. Hundreds of sign-waving protesters descended on the venue, chanting and marching up and down a nearby street.
U-M has had controversial speakers in the past, including earlier in October, when Charles Murray appeared on campus. Hecklers shouted at him during the speech and protested his speech. No arrests were made.
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the WZZM 13 app now.
© 2017 Detroit Free Press